- Agricultural biotech firm Tropic Biosciences raised $35 million to develop high-performing tropical crops. Sustainability investor Blue Horizon led the funding round. It was joined by DisruptAD, Skyviews Life Science, Bloom8, Tekfen Ventures and Sucden Ventures.
- U.K.-based Tropic uses gene-editing techniques to create banana, coffee and rice cultivars that can withstand climate-driven challenges — a market it estimated is worth a combined $400 billion. The company plans to use the funding to expand into new tropical crops.
- The biotech company’s work is one example of how gene editing can increase the yields of valuable crops and protect them against the stressors of climate change at a time of global shortages for many food commodities.
The food system has perhaps never been as vulnerable to price and supply shocks as it is now. The world is heavily reliant on only a few key crops, with rice, wheat and corn making up more than half of global plant-derived food energy. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting crop yields and triggering agricultural disease outbreaks, helping drive food insecurity in many poorer countries.
Bananas, the most consumed fruit in the United States and the world, typify this fragile food dynamic. About 99% of exported bananas are one variety: the Cavendish. But the variety has proven vulnerable to a series of disease threats, including Panama and black Sigatoka fungal diseases. According to research, climate change has only raised the risk of disease outbreaks in the fruit crop.
Tropic has been using gene editing on bananas since 2017 to extend shelf life and reduce browning. It began focusing on Panama disease in 2018, according to a 2020 report by the European news site Sifted.
Tropic, which has been modifying bananas using its GEiGS gene-editing tool, has been testing them in the field to determine their resistance to Panama disease. Sifted noted at the time of the interview that the company expected the plants to be used widely within five years if the tests went well, or around the 2025 timeframe.
The company’s other key targets include rice, which supplies 25% of global calories consumed. Its production is already being affected by climate change-driven weather extremes.
And Tropic also has been working with coffee, which has proven to be especially susceptible to water stress, higher temperatures and large quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The upstart said its GEiGS gene-editing technology also has the potential to create disease- and pest-resilient row crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat. It may even develop chickens resistant to avian flu.
It’s the kind of work that has helped Tropic raise more than $73 million since it was founded in 2016, drawing investors including Temasek and Japanese banana producer Sumitomo Corp.
The lead investor in this latest funding round, Blue Horizon, has made its name investing in businesses that positively impact the planet while also driving a positive return. In a statement, Blue Horizon CEO Björn Witte, noted the firm’s focus on “creating impact at scale” through its investments.
“Tropic will have a massively positive impact in an area that may not make the front pages of our newspapers every day, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important, quite the contrary,” he said.
Tropic is just one of several biotech firms working to make better, more resilient crops. Pairwise, which has partnered with Tropic to share gene-editing technology, has applied CRISPR in an attempt to make pitless cherries and remove the bitterness from greens. Benson Hill has used gene editing and AI analytics to develop more nutritious, sustainable and better-tasting plant ingredients, including yellow peas and soybeans.