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Growing smarter – to feed more.

Posted: 07 August 2017
The first in a blog post series by National Technology Networks Manager Kimberlee Jordan, following her recent Biotech trip to the United States.

Growing smarter

In June, I attended BIO 2017 – the world’s largest biotechnology event. This year it drew a record-breaking 16,123 biotech industry leaders to sunny San Diego for an action-packed four days of partnering meetings, keynote talks, insights from business leaders and the occasional bout of networking over drinks (read the networking functions were endemic!).

With over 800 speakers on 150-plus topics, there was a rich supply of perspectives on the opportunities and challenges which face the biotechnology industry.

I attended sessions on Modern Ag Innovation, the Microbiome, Synthetic Biology to produce chemicals for industry, Precision Medicine and of course the ever-present Big Data.

In the next few weeks I will be reflecting on some of the things I learned at BIO 2017, and how these might impact or suggest opportunities for industry in New Zealand.


Biotechnology presents us with some of the most powerful tools we have for confronting the problems we face today. With a rapidly expanding population and changing climate, issues of hunger, disease, scarce resources and pollution are bigger than ever before. In this blog, I’m going to consider how biotech can help us feed our ever-growing population.

The World Bank has predicted a need to produce 50% more food by 2050, as we face changes in climate that may reduce productivity by 25%. The potential (and indeed existing ability) of biotechnology to modify plants to grow under increasingly challenging environmental constraints, improve yields, and provide more effective protection against pests and diseases is significant. 

Recent evidence even suggests that plant genetics rather than environmental factors are the rate limiting factor for plant productivity. However, there is still significant consumer resistance to the idea of eating genetically modified species, and general concern about the effect that modified species might have on the long-term survival and health of existing species. 

One of the more interesting points made at the Modern Ag Innovation session I attended was that communication on modified species should focus less on the science and more on the benefits to consumers and growers – something that is often overlooked in the race to reassure the public of these new species’ safety.

Less controversial is the “micro” solution to the problem of crop productivity. In a panel session on Micro Solutions for Mega Problems, executives from New Leaf Symbiotics, Marrone Bio Innovations and Taxon Biosciences discussed the use of biologicals in crop improvement. These can take the form of pesticides developed from microbes (Marrone, and NZ’s BioStart); endophytes (New Leaf and NZ’s Biotelliga); or consortia of soil microbes (Taxon, and NZ’s BioConsortia).

Reflecting on technology trends for the future of crop biologicals, Matthew Ashby from Taxon observed that while there are many discovery technologies currently being developed, downstream products such as formulation, stabilisation and delivery mechanisms are lacking. This creates a significant bottleneck for getting these technologies into the field. Amit Vasavada from Marrone built on this, noting that identifying and developing a desirable organism is only one part of the solution – being able to grow the organism on a large scale and still be economically viable is another challenge altogether. 

New Zealand has great strengths in crop science and associated fermentation technologies, as well as companies who are developing the upstream solutions. I find myself wondering if anyone in our research organisations or industry has considered the potential opportunities offered by the apparent downstream bottlenecks. 

Next time I will take a look at developments in our understanding of human microbiomes.

Contact Kimberlee Jordan on Twitter @kimberlee_j

Callaghan Innovation is a New Zealand government innovation agency that works with Kiwi companies to accelerate commercialisation of their new technology ideas. Our National Technology Networks team supports businesses via our four technology platforms – Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Data & IoT, with the aim of helping companies rapidly connect to new and advanced technologies. 



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