Synthetic biology has the potential to reshape our agriculture systems and to usher in a new era equitable and of sustainable nutrition. It’s a lofty but critical goal—research projects we will face severe global food shortages by 2050. But for synthetic biology to successfully transform our food supply, the biotech community must also be aware of the pitfalls and hurdles that could inadvertently lead to greater food disparities. Resource distribution is already unequal. The World Economic Forum estimates that 9% of the global population, about 690 million people, did not have enough to eat in 2019. If current trends continue, this number is expected to exceed 840 million by 2030. Though these numbers may seem overwhelming, they can also be a catalyst for innovation.
There are solutions to global hunger at the intersection of science, business, and public policy. By working together, this trifecta can create and execute novel food technologies. It’s a challenge for any entrepreneur to take their concept out of the lab and into the hands of consumers. But when it comes to agriculture technology (ag-tech), the path to success doesn’t only run through key hires and venture funding. There are other important factors to consider:
Ask the Right Questions to Create More Equitable Outcomes
Ag-tech is the intersection of traditional farming methods and modern digital advances. For innovators seeking to address food security, it’s important to ask: Who is this technology designed to help? Will it improve food security in low-income regions or be too expensive and inaccessible? Have partnerships been established with local people and organizations who fully understand the needs of the community?
Ideally, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But good intentions can be difficult to translate into effective solutions. One of the most important enabling tools for entrepreneurs is also one of the most poorly understood: Public policies can be a tremendous help or hindrance to ag-tech startups.
In essence, public policies are laws and regulations that seek to solve or mitigate public problems, from social inequities and the climate crisis to world hunger. But how can synthetic biology entrepreneurs use public policy to accelerate ag-tech? What steps do startups need to take to work more synergistically with governments and community leaders?
The first step is for scientists, innovators, and policymakers to find a common language.
Improving Communication Between Scientists and Policymakers
One of the most common languages in the world is money. Saving a forest can have different values for different audiences. Some view a forest’s value in terms of biodiversity or groundwater preservation. But a forest can also be understood as a long-term financial loss if it’s cut down. With this mindset, entrepreneurs can explain the benefits and risks of deforestation in dollar values. They can also illustrate how their technology could reduce the need for deforestation by helping increase crop yields, for example. This type of communication also reveals the need for more “translators”—people who can facilitate communication between scientists and policymakers.
There is one other communication roadblock that’s often overlooked; outdated mentalities can also hinder progress. Christine Gould, Founder, and CEO of Thought For Food (TFF) sees elitism in science as a significant roadblock. “I think there is sometimes an arrogance in the scientific community that discounts the other social, political, and cultural aspects that impact how solutions are accepted. [This can] frequently lead to unintended consequences,” says Gould.
As an organization, TFF focuses on enabling the next generation of sustainable agriculture solutions. Achieving this requires dedicated cooperation. “If we can build bridges across disciplines and bring scientists together, [we can develop] solutions that are bigger than the sum of their parts,” says Gould.
Humility and commitment are important qualities for any scientist or entrepreneur seeking to affect change. But the motivation to help others isn’t typically enough to scale sustainable solutions.
Preventing Technological Inequalities Through Government Investment
If implemented successfully at scale, ag-tech has the potential to help reduce hunger, especially for lower-income communities. Technologies like modified seeds and precision farming are already helping increase crop yields and reduce resource needs. But because a technology is available, it doesn’t mean it’s actually accessible.
If a new technology requires training for users, developed nations would likely be in a much better position to implement it, leaving less equipped regions behind. Without effective policies, ag-tech could inadvertently exacerbate economic and social inequities as opposed to improving them.
Governments can mitigate these risks by removing cost as a barrier to access. “If we don’t give low-income countries the opportunity to use the technology, they are going to stay behind,” says Marcela Mendoza, CEO of GrowCab. The startup has developed an affordable speed-breeding technology for farmers and low-income labs to improve the genetic characteristics of crops. GrowCab’s team is also distinctly international, hailing from Mexico, Venezuela, and India.
Mendoza likens potential ag-tech inequalities to the rise of chemical fertilizers. While chemical fertilizers dramatically improved crop yields, not every community could afford the new technology. “What happened to the countries that couldn’t pay? It’s still happening with farmers today who can’t pay for chemical fertilizers. Their yields of crops are still very low and sometimes they don’t even have enough yields to feed their own family. We don’t want this to happen again [with ag-tech],” says Mendoza.
Access to new technologies is critical. But government aid can’t always be relied on. In some ways, it’s easier and more efficient to create partnerships at the local level.
Increasing the Success of Public-Private Partnerships
One of the most common complaints about government policies is all the red tape. National agencies are often rigid and siloed, leading to inefficient policy implementation. Scientists are often shocked at the bureaucracies involved in getting a patent. The time and effort it takes just to clear a patent application is a huge burden for new entrepreneurs.
Albert Kure, co-founder of Nigerian startup, Frontier Science Solutions (FrontierSS), sees the need to better align ag-tech startups with local policies. “I think for businesses, scientists, and entrepreneurs, the focus should be more on public-private partnerships that would leverage on all of these individual policies [at the] grassroots level. So we are not working outside of the system, we are part of the system,” says Kure.
FrontierSS’ central product is an edible chitosan-based preservative the company calls Coating+. Extracted from the exoskeletons of shrimp, it extends the shelf-life of perishable foods like fruits, meats, and fish. Kure says the company chose this formerly discarded byproduct to help address waste generated by Nigeria’s thriving shrimp industry.
But Kure also sees a tendency for scientists to try and exempt themselves from the system. “We get caught up in our books, our research, and the science. We get disconnected from the people and the policies that would drive the product to the people” says Kure, adding his concern that this “exception” mentality will continue to grow in Nigerian startup culture.
Building Community Support for Ag-Tech
Addressing food insecurities depends heavily on people shifting their perception of ag-tech and food, says Javier Larragoiti, co-founder of Mexican startup, Xilinat. The company works to derive a low-calorie sugar alternative, xylitol, from previously wasted agricultural products like corn cobs. Larragoiti says the company’s goal is to improve the health of millions of people with diabetes by making a cheaper, healthier sweetener. But community acceptance is a significant obstacle.
“One problem that we still have in developing countries is the lack of education. Many times when you approach a farmer and you tell them you have a better method, they don’t trust you,” says Larragoiti. Larragoiti says this lack of trust often results from a lack of knowledge and understanding about new techniques. For many farmers, ‘new’ does not always equate to ‘better.’ “The farmers usually refuse the help because they don’t like someone else telling them what to do,” says Larragoiti. Even when the government creates policies to support farmers, Larragoiti says many farmers are unwilling to accept it.
Putting the Interests of Disadvantaged Communities over Profit
World hunger is a human problem. The emphasis is on “human.” Agricultural technology, business models, and public policies are tools to help solve this tremendous challenge. But the values embodied by governments, startups, and financial institutions must put the interests of individuals and communities above net profit.
Shifting values from dollars to people may seem radical or highly improbable. But it’s an important shift if the synthetic biology industry is to fully accept its role in addressing global hunger. According to Gould, this will require creating new partnerships with investors who agree that socially-based business models are investable opportunities.
“I see a lot of potential to change things, but we have to get it right. And that means being on this journey with society. It means being brave to do the right thing for the world,” says Gould. This is the challenge that lies ahead and securing food for our global communities depends on it.
Want to understand more about how synthetic biology is reshaping the future of food? Join our upcoming Food and Agriculture event, co-hosted by Christine Gould and Thought For Food. Hear more from Christine as well as Albert Kure and Javier Larragoiti who will all be speakers at the event!6