The ag tech world is lighting up over a wide range of new approaches to farming. One hot area is genetic editing; the process of tweaking DNA in a plant, or animal, to achieve a specific outcome by either silencing a process or enhancing a process. And there’s a Minnesota company that’s already in the field with this technology and expanding for the 2018 season.
Calyxt announced recently that it has contracted with 75 farmers in the Upper Midwest to grow more than 16,000 acres of high-oleic soybeans. The company developed the soybeans and planted them in a limited quantity in 2017, and is expanding for the new season. Soybeans aren’t the only crop this company is working on. Farmers will see future advancements in wheat, canola, potatoes and alfalfa, too.
Federico Tripodi, Calyxt CEO, explains how this approach is different from other efforts in the market.
“Let me start by saying that we are a specialty ingredient company,” he says. “We’re building relationships with the food industry, and will be selling [high-oleic] oil to the food industry, and meal for animal feed.”
He explains that Calyxt doesn’t see itself as another seed company. The aim is to build a supply chain with farmers, crushers and distributors interested in premium soybeans and other crops. “That’s the way our path starts from a farm perspective,” he adds.
The company does intend to market its edited high-oleic seed in a Calyxt bag. The base soybean is a non-GMO variety that has been enhanced using this advanced breeding method, known as TALEN. And Tripodi says that USDA has already sent letters to the company releasing seven of its crops for use, without the need for further regulation. “We have seven letters from the USDA for our technology noting they will not be regulated, and I think that’s the highest for any company. Those letters cover our wheat, soybean, potato and alfalfa work,” Tripodi says.
The key is that gene editing is not about bringing foreign DNA into a plant, but instead the work of modifying the plant itself in ways that naturally and randomly occur through traditional breeding and evolution — but are accelerated by gene editing.
As an ingredient company, Calyxt still must work with farmers to have a product. The company has partnered with the Farmer Business Network to handle the transaction side of the seed business, including delivery and billing. “And we have our own team of agronomists that help us reach our target region,” Tripodi says.
He notes that the company is selling at competitive prices to non-GMO seed in the market, then paying farmers a premium on the harvest side of the transaction. And FBN has been offering participating farmers 0% financing through 2018 for some of its programs.
Signups and interest
The news that Calyxt will have more than 16,000 acres of high-oleic soybeans planted for 2018 shows interest in these crops. Tripodi adds that 90% of the farmers that took part in the more limited trial in 2017 signed on for the 2018 program. “They chose to stay with us year over year. We think farmers are looking for new alternatives. And we’re bringing new technologies in ways that small companies couldn’t before.”
In fact, the small company approach also offers opportunity on the food ingredient side. Tripodi says that several food companies are testing its high-oleic soybean oil for potential market use after harvest in 2018. Those companies will have had oils for testing in their recipes and processes for more than 12 months, which some larger companies need. “But there are smaller seed companies that can make quicker decisions, and move to incorporate these ingredients in their products as quickly as six months,” he says.
High-oleic soybean oil offers stability in fryers not available from conventional soybean oils. And while the high-oleic profile is like olive oil, the soybean oil version comes with no “added flavors” that can be a challenge for food companies.
As for the harvest premium, Tripodi says it is staged based on several factors, including on-farm storage, or harvest delivery; the number of acres committed to the program; and other factors. “The farmer sees a table of choices to pick from to understand how the premium is calculated,” Tripodi says.
Essentially, farmers get the Chicago Board of Trade price plus a premium — which means they get that basis payment and then a scale that can range from 40 to 90 cents, depending on those other factors.
More than soybeans
While the initial news is about soybeans, Western producers should know that Calyxt is hard at work on wheat, canola, potato and alfalfa upgrades, too.
Tripodi notes that deployment of new tech has been lagging to reach producers in wheat, and that there are many reasons for that. If Calyxt management has its way, that’ll change soon. The company has overcome a key challenge in gene editing.
“Wheat is a hexaploid, which means there are six copies of every gene in wheat,” he says. “There are 17 billion ‛letters’ of DNA in wheat, and it’s a hard crop to work with for editing. As a comparison, soybeans have two copies of its genes and only 1.2 billion letters of DNA.”
Yet Calyxt has figured out how to make the six-times alteration to genes in wheat, and is working on bringing new products to market soon. “We’re doing things we didn’t dream were possible, and we’ve been making one product after another,” Tripodi says. “We can bring new life into the wheat crop and reinvigorate the market for farmers and consumers alike.”
One product under development is a high-fiber wheat using gene editing.
“The high-fiber wheat may be our next contender for a commercial product,” he says. “The high fiber is a consumer trait. Consumers are getting less than half the fiber they should get because they don’t like to eat whole grains. We’re working on wheat to make a white wheat flour that will have three times the dietary fiber of conventional white wheat flour. We can help food companies bring those products to consumers.”
This work could involve enhancing white bread, white bakery items and white pasta and turning them into a better source of fiber, which has been identified for many health benefits.
On the agronomic side, Calyxt has figured out how to help a wheat plant battle fungal diseases through its process. “We worked with powdery mildew infestation and prevented it in both spring and winter wheat varieties we edited. We deactivated this gene, removed a few letters in the DNA and saw a dramatic change in tolerance.”
Calyxt is carving a new path in plant breeding. And what else might be coming? “My ancestors are Italian; I’d like to see something in a durum in the future,” he notes. You can learn more about the company and its work at calyxt.com.