Oil boom: ZeaKal Boosts Soybean Oil output by 18%, protein up 3%, no drop in yield

April 16, 2020 |

This week on DigestConnect the discussion will focus on crop yields and carbon smartness — and voila, more news emerging on that front, from ZeaKal, which announced that its multiyear field trials of its PhotoSeed technology – and their soybeans increased the per acre production of oil and protein by 18 percent and three percent respectively without any penalty to seed yield.

It’s probably the only oil glut you will hear about this year that is good news.

PhotoSeed increases a plant’s photosynthetic capacity, thereby capturing more CO2 and sunlight. In the case of soybeans, ZeaKal has been able to harness this additional energy into producing more oil and protein.

At the heart of it, increases in oleic acids, and that’s especially good news, Due to FDA approval of qualified health claims for oleic acids around heart health, improving soybean oil profile has been a core industry focus in recent years.

ZeaKal will expand field trials across additional sites in 2020, while also bringing new genetics innovations through the pipeline. Delivering additional benefits in carbon fixation and nitrogen metabolism, PhotoSeed may further augment agriculture’s role in meeting global sustainability goals in the years to come.

The ZeaKal backstory

Plants are notoriously inefficient at converting sunlight into biomass with levels between two to three percent. Making matters worse, under hostile environmental conditions (especially higher temperatures), plants work much harder and yield much less. Improving resource management is the first step, but ZeaKal’s founders are adamant that the world needs better biology to cope with increasingly severe environmental pressures.

“The need for innovation in the farming and food sector is important not only for farmers and consumers, but also for AgTech itself,” noted Arama Kukutai, Partner at Finistere Ventures. “The current consolidation among the big AgTech companies and low farm commodity price trends are cyclical. When these conditions change, there will be strong demand for new technologies to fill that innovation void. We back game-changing companies that deliver value from farm to the consumer in a sustainable manner and think ZeaKal is a revolutionary technology play in plant sciences.”

“As the world population increases to more than nine billion people by 2050, we need to develop the next generation of crops that can cope with the food supply demands,” added Dr. Henry Nguyen, Curators’ Professor of Genetics, National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the University of Missouri.” “Both conventional breeding techniques and biotechnology will be needed to increase the genetic gain in yield and improved drought tolerance in response to climate change. However, this is an extremely complicated area of research that has yet to make significant breakthroughs commercially.  ZeaKal’s impressive out-of-the-box technology approach to increasing photosynthetic efficiency and carbon fixation addresses the shortcomings of previous science strategies.”

The “it takes too long” backstory

With biotechnology, it has taken years, and zillions of dollars, to raise up a technology from its bench-scale lab roots. In too many cases, by the time the technology is ready, the market has moved on. Or, development time and money is directed towards solutions in search of a problem.

ZeaKal and Algenetix were incubated out of Finistere a few years back, through its Kapyon Ventures unit. The science behind PhotoSeed was first conceived in collaboration with research funded by the New Zealand government. As the science matured, ZeaKal migrated the program to the University of Missouri to further augment its access to world-class talent, research infrastructure and expertise.

So, ZeaKal is a hybrid. Not exactly a spin-out of university research, licensed and incubated out of a venture capital firm. In this case, venture capital is reaching into academia and helping to steer research towards solutions that will become commercial companies. Taking money that is already being expended in the public sector and ensuring that the market has a hand in steering development, and that technologies will not only solve real-world needs but do so in a commercially viable way.

“Investments in agriculture biotechnology have been limited largely by investor misconceptions that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build a successful company,” added Chen. “While this may have been true 15 or 20 years ago, the rapidly dropping cost of computing and biotech tools has created a new paradigm for innovation—and, therefore, investments. Biotech is experiencing the same trends that software did, and these trends will carry over to agriculture.”

ZeaKal’s PhotoSeed technology is an example of next-generation biology that can address pressing challenges posed by population increase. Rather than focus on pest and weed management that often require more chemicals to improve yield, the technology increases plants’ intrinsic photosynthetic capacity. PhotoSeed plants can harvest more sunlight, fix more carbon dioxide and do so with less water. For farmers, this means better seed and grain yield with forecasted yield improvements by as much as 20 percent.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Reaction from the stakeholders has been dramatic and excited, as one might expect.

“Grown on more than 120 million hectares worldwide, soybeans are an essential part of the food ingredient, vegetable oil and animal feed markets. However, the crop has faced mounting export challenges, continued declines in protein level and decreased nutrition. Innovation is critical in meeting the demands of farmers and consumers for increased value in the form of expanded functionality, better nutrition and sustainability, while continuing to deliver productivity,” said Paul Schickler, ZeaKal Board Advisor and former President of DuPont Pioneer. “ZeaKal’s ability to dramatically improve both oil and protein composition in soybeans will help address these demands in a key crop, while securing soybeans as a major component of the regenerative agricultural system.”

“Companies like ZeaKal can help farmers compete on the global export market. Farmers have always dealt with financial, environmental and trade challenges. Now, more than ever, we are also looking for technology solutions that can elevate our crops beyond low commodity pricing with value propositions that processors, food companies and consumers alike demand and are willing to pay for,” said Ben Riensche, whose family farm in Jesup, Iowa produces corn and soybeans on 14,000 acres. The Riensche farm regularly conducts research to advance crop nutrition and conservation practices. “I am particularly interested in the potential for increased carbon sequestration from products like PhotoSeed, as operations like ours continue to seek alternative revenue sources not tied strictly to yield.”

“With improved photosynthesis, our PhotoSeed plants are capturing more carbon dioxide from the air and converting it into more biomass and yield. This could potentially increase soil carbon from the residual biomass. These benefits are only the tip of the iceberg as we strive to make agriculture more sustainable,” noted Dr. Greg Bryan, cofounder and chief technology officer, ZeaKal. “PhotoSeed plants also have changes in how they use nutrients, and the changes in nitrogen metabolism may reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality.”

The Bottom Line

To put it in Toy Story terms, the idea is to get Woody to market before Buzz Lightyear comes along. Big results, no trade-offs in yield, and fast enough to matter in industrial terms. ZeaKal is getting it done.

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