The British food supply stands on a house of cards under a warming climate. 66% of its consumed berries including bananas, 54% of citrus, and 19% of legumes come from countries with high or intermediate climate vulnerability.
Britain is not unique however. The food systems of most countries will be vulnerable to far-flung climate shocks. 19% of global calories cross an international border, according to the international Food Policy Research Institute. Over half of the food consumed in the North Africa and Near East region is imported.
Drought is the most significant wide-scale climate risk for agriculture. Hotter temperatures in some regions will lead to desertification, where fertile soil turns to barren sand. Dwindling rainfall will intensify competition over freshwater, with agriculture often the biggest user of this resource.
In light of the food security risks posed by heat and reduced moisture, agricultural biotech startups in Europe are beginning to develop products that can enhance crop survival under drought conditions. We profile them below.
Plant-based plant protection
Drought-related crop losses might be something that we associate with countries closer to the equator but as Europe’s dry periods become more frequent, the region will also face food security crises. Record breaking temperatures in 2023 have already meant cereal production in southern Europe could fall by up to 60% on last year.
To mitigate losses in a changed climate, farmers will have to take a multi-pronged approach. Irrigation methods will have to change and tighter water use regulations may become normalised. In some places, farms will plant new crop species altogether.
An emerging tool of agricultural adaptation are biostimulants that help crops survive lengthier dry spells. Elicit Plant, a French agri-biotech company founded in 2017, is one of a growing number of European startups specialising in drought-related agricultural biotech.
Their product is a plant-based molecule which improves plant resistance to water stress, a crop trait that will become much more desirable to farmers across the world over the coming decades.
The active molecule in Elicit Plant’s product is called phytosterol, a lipid naturally found in plant cells that activates water stress mechanisms. Sold under the name Best-a, Elicit Plant already markets it internationally for corn and soy crops.
The product functions as an external, additional source of this molecule to the water-stressed plant. When applied to the plant leaf, it is designed to encourage root system growth so the crop can tap into water stores deeper underground. The substance also reduces evapotranspiration, a natural plant metabolic process that releases moisture from its leaves into the air.
In 2022, Elicit Plant obtained €16M in financing including from an equity component led by Sofinnova Partners and supported by the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund and BPI France. It plans to use the funds to commercialise.
Apart from price point, the major factor that determines the uptake of new agricultural biotech is proof it works in the field. Farmers tend to be conservative in their methods, a hedge against the nature of their product: year-long crop maturation cycles combined with the uncertainties of weather, crop diseases, and changing market prices.
To demonstrate the efficacy of their product, Elicit Plant has organised multiple field trials including with French agricultural cooperatives Euralis and Océalia as well as on their own experimental farm.
Multi-purpose stress relief
Drought is not the only weather pattern that farmers of the future will have to contend with more frequently. Climate change brings not just warming but more and more intense weather events of all shades, including flooding.
Fyteko is a Brussels-based startup working on a very similar product to Elicit Plant but addresses the whole suite of climate-driven extreme weather impacts. Its portfolio consists of several hydroxycinnamic acid oligomers (HAO), molecules taken from plant cell walls.
These molecules send a chemical signal which kickstarts coping mechanisms to combat stresses such as temperature, drought and flooding. Like Elicit Plant’s formulation, it is applied to the leaf.
Fyteko now has its sights on isolating and patenting other kinds of biomolecules that can make crops more robust. One ongoing project is a collaboration with Mycosign, a German company, to develop new biostimulants that can improve stress resistance and increased water use efficiency in plants using mycorrhizal fungi.
Anti-drought biostimulant awarded EU prize
Plants for Plants, another biostimulant for drought resilience, won the environmental category of the European Commisions’ LIFE Awards, which “recognise excellence in nature protection, environment, and climate action”.
Plants for Plants is a range of biostimulants developed by a joint project between Van Iperen International, a Dutch fertiliser company, and LandLab Italy, an agricultural R&D company. The products include Plants for Plants 4-Good, 4-Vita, and 4-Terra, which all optimises nutrient intake in crops and strengthens them under drought conditions.
Of all the companies covered so far, Plants for Plants has undergone the most field testing. The biostimulant has been applied to 30 crops on 455 hectares of land in 17 countries. Geographically varied field trials strengthen the market readiness of new agricultural biotech inputs since it gives farmers the assurance that their effectiveness is not limited to certain soils and climatic conditions.
Across the trials, Plants for Plants biostimulants reduced irrigation water use by 14, 700 m3. Yet like Fyteko’s product, Plants for Plants does not just work on building up drought resilience. It also cut down phosphorus fertiliser demand from the crops by 1222 kg and fungicide by 7.5 kg.
Biotech in an unequal world
Elsewhere in the world, funding shortfalls are preventing certain regions from building their own network of biotech startups targeted at drought-proofing food systems.
Agriculture employs two-thirds of the workforce and contributes 20 to 60 % of GDP on the African continent. It is also warming, on average, faster than the rest of the world.nAlready, water stress and drought are hitting the economy there and four out of five African countries are unlikely to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030.
Africa would be a prime market for homegrown biotech companies tackling the problem of improving crop survival under high heat stress. Yet biotech requires a lot of venture capital and entrepreneurs on the continent face huge structural barriers: Africa only receives around 1% of global financing.
Drought-resisting biostimulants are not the only biotech missing from Africa’s climate adaptation armoury. There are also very few regional companies developing strains of climate resilient crops. As it stands, seeds for drought-resistant crops are concentrated in the hands of large Western agribusinesses – those who own the capital intensive tech needed to bioengineer heat resilience into staple foods.
The lopsided nature of international trade and intellectual property law also make it difficult for farmers in developing countries to readily access and experiment with strains found in genebanks, large ‘libraries’ of crop seeds that preserve genetic diversity for future gene editing and breeding purposes. They form the basis of all agricultural biotechnology since they offer a diverse pool of traits that can be combined and recombined to face new climatic conditions.
Again, gene banks are concentrated in the hands of large institutions and removed from circulation among farmers themselves. With limited access to the raw materials of plant breeding and few indigenous biotech startups in gene editing, smaller farmers in Asia and Africa are forced to buy their end products at a premium from international firms and cannot freely breed strains adapted to the local conditions where they plant.
There are signs there could be progress on equalising access to capital, tech, and genetic resources. Climate justice has climbed the diplomatic agenda of late thanks to the high profile Summit for a New Global Financing Pact. Developing countries used the summit to demand advanced economies reform international finance to free up funds for climate action. Although Western countries did not make major commitments on key demands around debt relief, the conference opened a political space where wider injustices such as Africa’s capital shortfall could be addressed..
Growing demand for drought adaptation
The 29 days from 3 to 31 July were the hottest 29 days that humans have ever systematically recorded. A sense of foreboding has now set in that climate change and its food impacts will unfold faster than anticipated.
Already this year, Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey and India have banned major agricultural exports like rice, grains, and beef as crop production and stocks falter. Scorching temperatures mean that Australian wheat for the coming year could be 29% lower than the last. 23% of US corn crops are experiencing severe or worse drought conditions. All the while, fossil fuel emissions continue to grow.
Increasingly, global consumers will be forced to confront what it means to live in a hotter, drier world. As shortages and price inflation in basic food commodities hit spending power, more attention will fall on agricultural biotech that uses low-impact renewable compounds to limit crop losses. Observing and extracting the natural mechanisms used by plants to respond to heat stress opens a promising avenue to develop a new agricultural toolkit adapted for a more extreme climate.