Kathy Flores VP Supply Chain, Benson Hill Biosystems, Benson Hill

For many of us, there’s nothing better than summertime and the sizzle of a thick steak hitting a hot grill. You’re smiling just thinking about it aren’t you? It just wouldn’t be summer without firing up the grill and cranking up the tunes. 

But, as enjoyable as that may be, the professional side of me finds it hard to tune-out the challenges facing livestock farmers to find more nutritious, cost-effective feed. Not to mention the opportunities of a public seeking plant-based protein alternatives that look and taste like a backyard masterpiece.

As the global population swells, a lot of things are going to have to change. One of them is protein. 

For starters, we’re going to need a lot more of it. With the population projected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, there will be an increase of 2 billion — 26 percent — in the number of mouths to feed. At the same time, rising prosperity, especially in the developing world, will enable more people to upgrade their diets.  So the demand for protein will grow even faster than population. Some observers, in fact, expect it to double.      

And then there’s climate change, which is posing rising challenges to every sector of our food system, including farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.

All of which means that the demand for both animal-based and plant-based protein is likely to rise sharply — and that innovation in how we sustainably meet that demand through crops and seeds is going to be required. 

Until now, there have been a few limiting issues with keeping up with that need for crop innovation to address this accelerating demand. One has been the time and cost of traditional breeding, and another is the regulatory and consumer complexity surrounding GMOs. Each can take 10-15 years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Something for which the market and many food producers simply don’t have the appetite.

Fortunately, we now have some new tools. Advances in data-driven prediction can accelerate the plant breeding process. With genome editing, we can “turn up” or “turn down” or “turn off” genes that are already there, like a dimmer on a light switch. With these tools, we can capitalize on the genetic diversity that nature has built into plants, we can eliminate 80% of the trial and error associated with traditional breeding and provide greater predictability and precision in gene targeting. The time savings in turn translates directly to cost savings, making food innovation more accessible and affordable. 

As an example, we can now improve the amino acid profiles of soybeans while minimizing the impact on yield. That means we can simultaneously boost their nutritional value for both animal feed and human food markets and increase profit opportunity for growers. 

These same tools can also be used to develop other crops for plant-based protein, such as yellow pea. Yellow pea is well suited for some food and pet food applications but has received relatively little genomic innovation because the historic high costs and long timelines are unjustifiable in a crop that’s planted on less than five million acres across North America. With genome editing, yellow peas, fava beans and many other crops can better serve demand for new protein options that are rising 20% per year — increasing nutrition, flavor and texture and creating new markets for growers.

At Benson Hill, we’re committed to empowering innovators to create more healthy and sustainable food choices for everyone. Are you ready to help meet the growing and evolving demand for protein? Are you ready to see what genome editing can do for you? If so, I’d love to talk.