Next-generation genetic manipulation hits a tipping point as new crops reach consumers

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Next-generation breeding includes a wide range of genetic modification (GM) techniques, including those for gene editing (e.g., CRISPR-Cas, zinc-finger nucleases, and transcription activator-like effector nucleases), epigenome editing, gene silencing, and directed crossing. The industry has now transitioned several times from tool development and diversification — there are now 27 unique CRISPR-Cas systems — to the simultaneous editing of multiple genes at once (multiplex editing) to high-resolution base editing and more advanced prime editing to editing the epigenome. 

During this time, several companies produced GM crops that reached the consumer but experienced limited commercial success. Examples include Calyxt (high oleic acid soybean) and Calgene (the FLAVR SAVR tomato, for example); both companies have since been acquired for their technology and expertise. But from 2023 to 2024, at least 12 companies launched gene-edited crops or had them approved. Together, these data points signify an important tipping point for the future of crop development. The Lux Tech Signal, which provides a combined score of innovation trends, also correctly identifies this tipping point for crop-specific gene editing (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Lux Tech Signal for gene editing and next-generation genome modification technologies applied to crops.

What has driven this tipping point?

We can gain some insight by examining recent activity from the perspectives of policy, IP, and product releases.

Policy 

Innovation remains driven by open markets. While the EU has relaxed, and become more progressive with, its GM policy, it is not easy to penetrate EU markets, unlike those in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia. These are the regions where we observe commercial penetration.

IP 

The IP landscape has transitioned from a battle for platform technology to a need to license available tech to capture editing opportunities across as many genomes as possible. Further, we are beginning to see IP generated for edited genes that challenge other players. Most recently, Norfolk Healthy Produce beat Baker Creek with its GM Empress purple tomato. Because Norfolk licensed its IP first, Baker Creek was forced to remove its product from the market.

Product releases

More products have reached the market in the past year than ever before. While it’s clear that gene editing is the leading GM technique, it is also clear that gene editing is by no means the only path to market. Despite consumer uncertainty about GM foods, products going directly to consumers are in high demand by early adopters. This will also be the first year that GM crops will be available for consumers to grow at home. At USD 2/seed, Norfolk Healthy Produce’s tomatoes and tomato plants have been in high demand. While this consumer-driven business approach is the first of its kind, expect other players to follow suit, given the company’s success in 2024 and plan to expand in 2025. There will not be a shortage of new GM crops coming to market in the next 2–3 years. Most players shown in the table below have pipelines with additional edited traits or the expansion of those traits to other crops.

DeveloperProductClaimGM techniqueYear
Okanagan Specialty FruitsArctic Gala apple28-day shelf life for sliced fruitRNA interference2024
Sound Agriculture Summer Swell tomatoSweeter taste and extended peak flavorEpigenetics2023
Norfolk Healthy ProduceEmpress purple tomatoIncreased anthocyanin concentrationInsertional mutagenesis2024
PairwiseMustard greensReduced wasabi flavorGene editing2024
PairwiseBlackberry Seedless, thornless, and high yieldGene editing2024
Shandong Shunfeng Biotechnology Co., LtdSoybeanIncreased oleic acid contentGene editing2024
CortevaWaxy cornIncreased amylopectin concentrationGene editing2023
GreenVenusLettuceIncreased shelf life up to 21 daysGene editing2023
BetterSeedsTomatoMaxHeat and herbicide resilienceGene editing2024
CoverCressPennycressCover crop oilseed with novel oil composition and competitive meal compositionGene editing2024
EmbrapaSoybeanReduced anti-nutritional factorsGene editing2023
CibusOilseed rapePod shatter reductionGene editing2023

What does the future hold beyond additional product releases?

It’s clear we are entering a period of commercialization as the culmination of five years of innovation investment, consumer interest, policy, and agronomic needs begin to align. Innovation efforts will likely diminish somewhat during this commercialization phase but will be maintained in a few key areas. One is the promise of novel GM techniques for perennial crops. This is beginning in berries but everything from citrus and avocado to grapes and nuts will receive focused efforts. Beyond this, there is the potential to impact plant-microbiome interactions. These below-ground traits will likely come into focus first through academic spinouts. Overall, the promise of next-generation GM is having significant impacts on crops that, in the past, have seen limited trait development activity, but companies will move beyond these crops and incremental changes toward disruptive GM down the road. Companies should look to next-generation breeding as a key element of long-term innovation to overcome process-related challenges. While biomanufacturing provides an alternative process to support resilience, GM traits provide another option when aligned to industry processing needs, emerging consumer themes, and global challenges.

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