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US seed design start-up Inari raises $124 million

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Massachusetts-based Inari has raised $124 million in series E funding, bringing its cumulative equity raised to $475 million, to develop its yield-increasing seed technology. 

  • Inari leverages artificial intelligence and deep learning to edit the genes of vital crop seeds, aiming to increase yields while reducing land, water and nitrogen requirements. 
  • The global hunger crisis is worsening year on year, driven by severe weather conditions, geopolitical conflict, price inflation and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Genetically modified seeds could prove vital in improving the resilience of global food systems, but new players within the sector will have to proceed carefully to avoid potential social, economic and environmental trade-offs. 

Inari’s SEEDesign technology relies on AI-powered predictive design capabilities to create blueprints that identify how seeds can be genetically modified to improve their yield, while also using water and fertiliser more efficiently. 

The firm plans to use its latest investment to expand its product development and bring new value to the commercial seed market, initially targeting staple crops such as corn, soy and wheat.

It projects that its system, which enables multiple different types of gene editing, could improve the yields of these crops by around 20% while reducing the water and nitrogen fertiliser requirements of corn by 40% each. 

“These investments put us in a position to truly push the boundaries of what is possible and design seeds for a more sustainable, nature-positive food system”, said Ponsi Trivisvavet, Inari’s CEO. 

The world is facing a global hunger crisis 

According to the World Food Programme’s Global Report on Food Crises, 2021 saw the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity rising to 193 million across 53 countries. Even once population growth is accounted for, this represents a significant increase from 2021, and the problem is expected to worsen in 2022. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) backs up these findings in its own 2022 report, which observes a regression in global progress to address all forms of food insecurity and malnutrition and warns that 670 million people will still not have sufficient access to nutritious food by 2030.  

A range of interconnected factors are worsening the global hunger crisis, including the uneven economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, price inflation, geopolitical conflict such as the war in Ukraine, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as a result of climate change. 

In the EU alone, the 2022 yield outlook for summer crops was reduced by 8-9% due to July’s hot weather. This was unlikely to be a one-off occurrence, with research suggesting that climate change could reduce global agricultural production by up to 17% by 2050. 

Increased production is not sustainable 

The global hunger crisis cannot be solved simply by increasing agricultural production, as land use change would only accelerate the problem by reducing biodiversity, soil quality, carbon sequestration capacity and overall resilience to the impacts of climate change. 

Global food production currently generates around 17 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, while also using excessive amounts of water and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilisers. 

As such, the delivery of reliable, inclusive and sustainable food supplies will demand a complete transformation of the global agricultural industry. 

Could genetically modified seeds be the answer? 

Genetically modified seeds (GM seeds) are those that have been manipulated in laboratories to exhibit favourable characteristics such as increased yield or resistance to pesticides.  

Supporters of genetic modification champion its ability to increase production without needing to convert more arable land, reduce the volume of chemical inputs needed, improve economic returns, and strengthen the overall resilience of global food supplies. 

There have, however, been several incidences of genetic modification contributing to a range of social, economic and environmental concerns.  

The commercial seed industry has been dominated by a few select players, with various trade regulations and intellectual property laws restricting the seed sovereignty of small-holder farmers.

Companies such as Monsanto, for example, have been accused of creating seeds that don’t allow for germination or generational use, hiking up prices and more, and has been the target of much consumer activist action.

The environmental benefits of GM seeds have also been questioned, with their resistance to pesticides causing farmers to use more chemicals without concern for their crops. In addition to the chemical pollution this causes, it has also allowed some pests to develop their own resistance and return as a threat to production. 

Furthermore, once farmers start using GM seeds, it can be difficult to transition back to organic varieties, meaning that their livelihoods become dependent on repeat orders to corporate giants. 

Inari claims to address these issues through its commercial relationships with independent seed companies that sell directly to farmers. It says it works alongside its customers to truly understand and address the problems they face before providing a fair solution.  

If the start-up’s actions match up to its statements, we may see an example of how genetic modification can contribute to global food security while carefully avoiding potential trade-offs. Given the success of its fundraising, it certainly seems as though there is appetite for new players within the GM seed industry. 

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