Regulations, funding, and knowledge gaps: Challenges and opportunities in bringing agricultural biotechnology to market

Innovations in agriculture will play an increasingly important role in America’s quest to ensure resilient and sustainable production of food, medicine, and bioenergy products. Biotechnology, spurred by advances such as cheap sequencing, offers a realm of possibilities for novel agricultural inputs, such as more targeted pesticides that are less toxic and less likely to cause tolerance, less carbon-intensive alternatives to fertilizers, and more climate-resilient crop varieties. 

However, research and development of new agricultural biotech products can be expensive and time-consuming, due to the large physical scale and long timelines of field trials. At the same time, federal funding for agriculture research has historically paled in comparison to funding for defense, energy, and human health. For example, in 2022, the NIH’s R&D budget was more than 16 times that of the USDA’s. 

The Biden administration has demonstrated its recognition of the need to accelerate research and development in agricultural biotechnology, featuring it prominently in 2022’s Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. Additionally, a bill to expand authorization of funding for a moonshot USDA research grant program, AgARDA (Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority), has broad bipartisan support. At the same time, there has been a commensurate increase in private funding

While this multi-front surge in enthusiasm and investment is welcome, many challenges remain in translating money, ideas, and laboratory results to the field and the market, including communication between the various stakeholders in agricultural biotechnology R&D. To better understand industry priorities and potential barriers to progress, we spoke to members of the executive team of Fall Line Capital (FLC), a venture capital (VC) and private equity firm that invests in food/agriculture startups. Fall Line’s investments include new biopesticides (Greenlight, Micropep), functional microbes (Pluton, Wild Microbes), and new equipment (Guardian Agriculture, Rantizo, LUMO), in addition to managing a farmland portfolio. As lifelong farmers as well as agriculture technology (agtech) investors, Clay Mitchell and Scott Day offer a multifaceted perspective on the current landscape.

We then outline actions for government actors that can address the challenges identified in our interview, in three key areas: regulatory oversight, federal R&D funding, and bioliteracy.

Q: What can the U.S. government do to provide a supportive landscape for new agricultural biotechnology?

Fall Line Capital: I think the biggest hurdles are regulatory. If the government wants to be truly supportive and innovative, it should be working to revamp the convoluted regulatory environment. The current system wasn’t designed to handle all the new technology being developed with novel mechanisms of action, so hurdles to creating and commercializing stifle innovation even more than they did in the past. 

Looking at new technology like RNA– and micropeptide-based pesticides, it’s been a difficult process to get those products registered, even though they should be embraced: compared to conventional pesticides, they have the potential to be highly specific to the target organism and minimally toxic to non-target organisms. During GreenLight’s discussions with the EPA to register their RNAi biopesticide for tackling invasive potato beetles, the EPA seemed to understand that this sort of technology is the future, but movement through the registration approval process was slow nevertheless; the application sat there for five 5 years. There were dozens of other biological pesticide product applications, and the EPA had to give every application the same level of scrutiny, even if many were obviously ineffective. There’s pressure to register more biological products as a prominent alternative to traditional chemical products, despite generally low efficacy. This clutters up the process, and the EPA was already short-staffed after extensive attrition during COVID. 

A substantial amount of the innovation is coming from small companies like Greenlight that don’t have the resources (which many of the large incumbent ag companies have) to navigate the current registration programs and protocols, which are spread across multiple agencies involved in regulating biotechnology: the USDA, EPA, and FDA. There needs to be a new concierge resource beyond what the Unified Website for Biotechnology Regulation currently provides, that could direct you to the right office, the right registration process, as well as appropriate funding opportunities and legal resources.

Q: What do you think are currently the most pressing challenges in agriculture?

FLC: Pest resistance continues to be a very serious concern in agriculture, so new and effective control measures need to be continually developed for all pests: weeds, insects, disease. There are two major pests of concern for my own farm in Western Canada. First, herbicide-resistant kochia weed, which has become a huge problem in the last five years all across the world. No one’s sure how exactly it spread so quickly. Second, flea beetles are decimating cruciferous crops. RNAi-based insecticides could be very effective here, if we can achieve sufficient persistence of the insecticide and avoid impacting non-target species.

In terms of challenges to agriculture-based businesses, there’s a lack of funding right now for getting tech to market. Funding for agtech from VC firms fell last year, as it did for most forms of tech. This was  following a very strong period of agtech funding for the previous two years, during which we saw over-investment in several sectors, such as alternative meat and indoor farming. At the same time, agtech companies typically have long timelines to product launch and need more funding than just one VC can provide. Right now, many companies who come to Fall Line for money are just looking for short-term “bridge funding” so they can make payroll and buy time until they can demonstrate enough progress to raise a successful “series” round with good valuation and favorable investment terms. And no one is going public right now.

Q: What are common knowledge gaps for agtech startups regarding farmers’ needs?

FLC: Agtech startups are often centered around a great idea or technology that’s looking for a problem to solve — but it’s hard for a specific technology to meet the needs of a variable problem. Farmers’ needs and priorities (e.g. pests, nutrients, etc.) are incredibly diverse, varying dramatically by crop and location, even from one field to the next on the same farm, or even within the same field. Today, it is very hard to get an accurate understanding of what is needed or desired at the farm level because there is no easy way to connect with growers on a broad scale. Farm papers have diminished in popularity just like mainstream papers, radio has diminished as well. Unless you have the email address or cell phone number of a farmer, it is hard to connect directly with them now, and most farmers don’t like doing surveys of any type anyway — and those that do aren’t that representative of the industry. I think this is why most types of polls are becoming less accurate as it is increasingly more difficult to get a representative sample of opinions. 

Farmers can be hesitant to adopt new technologies, since the risk can be high. And once they’ve been burned once by a product that failed to work as advertised, they’re unlikely to be willing to trust that company, or even that type of product, in the future. For example, last year, North Dakota State University scientists coordinated a large-scale field trial where it showed in a large field trial that most new biological products aimed at improving nitrogen-fixation in non-legume crops were ineffective at increasing yield. In general, the efficacy of biologicals can vary greatly depending on the exact field conditions, making it hard to reliably achieve the advertised result. There’s a huge jump from greenhouse results to field trials, another huge jump from field trials to commercial fields. But when a product’s value is obvious, farmers actually embrace new technology very quickly: both GMO crops and GPS achieved widespread adoption in a very short period of time.

Finally, technology developers should keep in mind that problems can be solved by old or simple technology. When people think about controlled-environment farming, their minds jump to fancy things like vertical farming — but with irrigation and mulch films, you’re 90% of the way there. Simply by adding a mulch film to heat the soil, farmers can greatly extend the growing season in northern climates by a month. This approach allowed us us to substantially increase the yield from our corn fields in Wisconsin.

This conversation illustrates a clear need for change in three key areas:

Federal funding for agricultural R&D

Given the unreliability of private market funding for agricultural biotechnology R&D, which often entails long turnaround times and low margins relative to traditional tech companies, substantial federal funding through research programs such as AgARDA is vital for accelerating R&D. AgARDA, based on the ARPA Advanced Research Projects Agency model, would allow the USDA to support the development of transformative technologies for focus areas of its choosing. However, despite its popularity, AgARDA, which was first authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill for $50 million annually for FY2019-2023, only received $2m in that timeframe. The USDA requested $5m for AgARDA in FY2022 and again in FY2023; it only received $1m each year. By contrast, ARPA-H, the human health equivalent, was authorized in FY2022 and immediately received its full $1 billion authorization, followed by $1.5b in FY2023. 

The USDA has published an implementation framework for AgARDA. Unfortunately, misalignment between USDA and Congress appears to be preventing AgARDA from being fully funded to its authorized levels. Members of the Congressional agriculture committees want the USDA to show that it has made progress with the $2m it has received before they allocate additional funding, namely the appointment of a dedicated director and initiation of a pilot program with calls for grant proposals. However, the USDA has deemed the $2m insufficient to support long-term staff or a formal grant program, especially since the appropriations require annual renewal. The current impasse means that no AgARDA projects have been rolled out, despite the pressing nature of the research priorities identified by the USDA.  

The following steps should be taken for AgARDA to achieve its full potential:

Regulatory oversight

The U.S. regulatory system for biotechnology needs to be a) expanded, with funding for a larger agency staff to process applications quickly; b) updated, to be flexible such that it can accommodate new-to-market technologies; and c) coordinated, to streamline approval processes. 

The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology (NSCEB) addresses these unmet needs in its interim report. First, NSCEB is “considering options to facilitate higher staffing levels”; this should be made a priority. 

Second, concerning regulatory oversight, NSCEB identified three potential paths for improvement:

Of these, the hybrid approach would likely provide the greatest flexibility. In contrast, discrete changes to individual statutes will likely involve slow, piecemeal changes that can easily become outdated again. While a unified regulatory process may be more streamlined, the report’s phrasing creates a sharp binary delineation between biotech and conventional that does not reflect reality. Such a delineation could engender a lot of wasted time debating biotech versus conventional classification for a given product. 

Finally, to address intra- and interagency coordination, the NSCEB presented two Farm Bill amendments that deserve Congressional support: the Biotechnology Oversight Coordination Act and the Agriculture Biotechnology Coordination Act.

Bioliteracy and agricultural education

Market demand and regulations are informed by consumer perceptions, which then impact R&D decisions. For example, fear of consumer and regulatory backlash can dissuade companies from investing in new genetic engineering technology for developing new plant varieties, despite their potential to improve agricultural sustainability. Increased bioliteracy across the American public would help consumers, businesses, and policymakers alike better understand new biotechnologies and engage with the burgeoning bioeconomy. This is a need that the NSCEB has also highlighted. At the K-12 level, improvements could comprise updating science curriculums to include contemporary topics like gene editing, as well as amending civics curriculums to better explain the modern functions of regulatory agencies. In addition, agricultural education can be embedded into biology and earth science curriculums to reconnect the public at large with the realities faced by producers. Similar to computer science literacy improvements through standard setting and funding, bioliteracy can be improved through state-level education initiatives.

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