The status quo in humanity’s food systems is deeply flawed
Evaluating our global food systems and our collective human health can be incredibly overwhelming. About 820 million people or 1 in 9 people globally are hungry. In extreme juxtaposition, one in three is overweight or obese. Even more systemic, 2 billion people do not consume enough vitamins and minerals to maintain healthy growth.
According to the 2020 Global Nutrition Report, poor diet is the leading cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide.
A poor diet alone wreaks havoc on the body and the repercussions can be a lifelong disease. One example is diabetes which some estimate that someone dies every eight seconds from diabetes or its complications. This is projected to increase over time across the world. The annual medical costs of treating the consequences of obesity are staggering and are expected to surpass $1.2 trillion dollars per year by 2025. Over the past four decades, the prevalence of diabetes in adults has remained unchanged or worse has increased in every country.
The vast majority of people cannot access or afford a healthy diet.
The reasons for this are complex, however, one major reason is that existing agriculture systems produce an overabundance of grains including rice and wheat instead of healthier foods like a diverse variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. There are certain micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals that are essential for proper development and disease prevention. Deficiencies in these micronutrients can have devastating consequences. Some examples include:
- Vitamin A- essential for many physiological processes including maintaining eyesight, a healthy immune system, and proper functioning kidneys.
- Folate- essential for DNA replication and cellular division.
- Zinc- essential for the immune system to fight viruses and bacteria in addition to proper development during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. It is also important in the healing of wounds and a proper sense of both taste and smell.
- Magnesium- essential for regulating proper muscle and nerve function, healthy blood sugar levels, and blood pressure.
There are a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that can provide these micronutrients. The need to address the inequities that exist in our food systems has never been more poignant. There is extensive research that draws a strong correlation between the weaker immune systems of undernourished individuals and a greater risk of severe illness due to COVID-19. On the other end of the spectrum — individuals with diabetes, are obese, or have other conditions of poor metabolic health — are more likely to have worse COVID-19 outcomes which can include hospitalization and death.
Good nutrition is an essential part of an individual’s defense against COVID-19. Nutritional resilience is a key element of a society’s readiness to combat the threat.
— 2020 Global Nutrition Report
So what solutions can we create to address malnutrition, obesity, poor metabolic health, and micronutrient deficiencies?
Humans have been bringing their curiosity and creativity to collaborate with nature in agriculture for thousands of years.
A great example of this is the banana which is considered by some to be the world’s first cultivated fruit. The domestication of the banana started between 8000 BC and 5000 BC in Southeast Asia. The original fruit featured large, hard seeds and was not as delicious as what we eat today. Over time, humans genetically modified bananas by selectively growing those plants with smaller seeds and a better taste. By propagating banana plants with these preferred qualities, farmers amplified the genetic traits that accounted for those characteristics over time. This was similarly done with other crops such as watermelon, carrots, corn, and peaches. All of these fruits and vegetables were genetically modified long before humans understood what DNA was or the role it played in all living things. As our understanding of science expands, we are better able to understand the molecular world in and around us. This enables humanity to co-create with nature at a more fundamental level, to apply our creativity in a more nuanced, detailed way.
Pairwise was founded in 2017 by CEO Dr. Tom Adams, Dr. Haven Baker, Dr. Feng Zhang, Dr. J. Keith Joung, and Dr. David Liu. Through a partnership with Harvard’s Broad Institute and Massachusettes General Hospital, Pairwise uses licensed CRISPR technology to cultivate the best fruits and vegetables.
CRISPR technology is the innovation next step in humanity’s long history of collaboration with nature. Through studying archaea and bacteria over the years, scientists noticed a special element of their immune systems that helped defend against viral attacks. Dr. Feng Zhang, one of Pairwise’s cofounders was responsible for successfully adapting the CRISPR-Cas 9 system for genome editing in eukaryotic cells. This was a transformational moment as this meant that all eukaryotic organisms — plant, animals, fungi, and algae—could at some point benefit from CRISPR’s editing potential.
Normally if growers want to move a trait from one plant into another, they have to breed two plants together. This process presents a challenge, as the particular trait comes within the entirety of the plant’s DNA so the resulting offspring is a blend of both parent plants' whole genome. This is not always effective, sometimes the trait isn’t expressed based on how the DNA recombination goes, or sometimes other traits are expressed in addition to the one of interest which makes the plant flawed in other ways. This is a long, tedious, and resource-intense process. With CRISPR, the process becomes intentional, moving only one gene and leaving the rest of the plant’s genome unchanged. This means a gene expressing disease resistance in one parent plant can be promoted in offspring without risking producing an entirely different plant due to recombination.
The implications of CRISPR technology are wide-reaching and it has the potential to do tremendous good. However, with all technology, bad actors could use it destructively. Pairwise plans to lead with transparency to build an inclusive and educated narrative around their use of CRISPR technology. Through open conversations about their goals and hopes for our collective future, combined with creating products that people love, the Pairwise team hopes to give consumers confidence in the long-term potential of the technology.
It’s been so wonderful to build our team. We are only three years old and we have built an incredibly talented group of people driven by our mission to come together and change the way people eat.
— Tom Adams, CEO of Pairwise
In a conversation with CEO Tom Adams, he shared his enthusiasm for one particular product currently in early commercial development.
Most people prefer the taste and texture of an iceberg or romaine lettuce however the nutritional properties are not as great as kale. The product is an improved, high-nutrient dense, leafy green with nutritional properties similar to kale but the taste and texture of romaine or iceberg lettuce. How did the Pairwise team actualize such a hybrid? By taking a relative of kale, a pungent taste reminiscent of horseradish, and simply deactivating the enzyme responsible for that element of flavor. This is an exciting first step in reducing the barriers to the produce aisle by creating products that fit into people’s lives.
It’s really exciting to feed people the version that tastes like horseradish followed by the edited version—you really see the lightbulb go off in their head about the possibilities of this technology and how it can make something accessible for them.
—Tom Adams, CEO of Pairwise
The company has set its sights on North American markets first and making an impact in the consistent consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, they are hopeful that the technology will drive tangible change across the world over time, leading to a healthier global population.
So what does the future of food look like from Pairwise’s perspective? The opportunity to make healthier choices easier for all people while tangibly making an impact in the daunting statistics defining our food systems.
And this vision certainly resonates. This food startup has made significant strides since its inception which includes forming a strategic alliance with Bayer to work on corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola crops. In February 2021, Pairwise announced the closing of its $90 million Series B funding round. And they are looking to launch their first product in late 2022.
Want to talk about biotechnology or bioeconomy innovation? Let’s connect! Working on some cool science you think is essential to the conversation? Leave me a comment below! Also, make sure you check out this other interesting article:
Follow Bioeconomy.XYZ, in order to learn more about all the ways biotech, is shaping the world around us.