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This week, San Diego synthetic biology startup ZeaKal, an innovator in plant trait technology, released new study results bolstering its case that its flagship product, PhotoSeed, is first in the global agriculture industry to improve the oil, protein and sustainability profile of soy. ZeaKal is preparing to commercialize its product, PhotoSeed, which it believes will deliver greater nutritional composition and profitability across the agriculture supply chain.

PhotoSeed is a trademarked trait technology designed to help crops–including soy, corn, rice, sugarcane, and others–to capture more carbon and sunlight, leading to healthier, nutrient-rich food and animal feed, but grown with a smaller environmental footprint. Soybeans cultivated with ZeaKal’s PhotoSeed will be available to U.S. farmers in the 2024 growing season. The company’s most recent venture capital commitment, a Series C funding round in September 2019, was led by agtech funds Finistere Ventures, Middleland Capital and Canopy Rivers, which remain invested in the company.

According to ZeaKal, an evaluation of multiple field sites spanning top producing soybean states showed that PhotoSeed increased oil composition up to 17 percent and protein up to 7 percent on a dry weight basis, with consistent yields comparable to modern cultivars.

Protein:oil quandary 

The latest results build on data from ZeaKal’s own 2020 trials, which found that ZeaKal’s novel trait technology delivered better carbon capture and overall nutritional composition in a year when the industry recorded an all-time low in soy protein levels.

“This year’s data shows we’ve taken PhotoSeed one step further to decouple the 2:1 inverse genetic relationship between protein and oil, which has been an industry-accepted sacrifice,” said Greg Bryan, Chief Technology Officer at ZeaKal. “Consistent results across multiple geographies and growing seasons brings ZeaKal one step closer to achieving greater returns for farmers, processors and end users on existing acres.”

To date, the R&D pipelines of several leading soybean seed producers have solely prioritized yield and agronomics that (per ZeaKal) often come at the expense of the composition that is valued by the processors and end users of soybeans. As global demands for plant oils and protein continue to increase–outstripping production at an unprecedented pace–the company says yield alone will no longer be sufficient to sustainably meet these requirements.

Vast structural shifts

“Early indicators suggest the global soybean market is experiencing vast structural shifts. Even as we focus on protein, the pressure for oil is more urgent,” said Gordon Denny, Board Advisor for ZeaKal, the United Soybean Board and U.S. Soybean Export Council. “Without new technology like PhotoSeed, which can equitably deliver desired grain composition, the food system will have a difficult time responding to demand for high energy and nutrition crops over the next decade without major pressure on food security and prices.”

Soybean industry experts say the percent of gross processing margin attributable to oil versus meal is increasing dramatically from its typical range of 30-33 percent, despite making up only approximately 18 percent of its weight. In recent months, soybean oil has grown to more than 40 percent and is predicted to reach 50 percent of the bean’s value soon. In emerging countries where soybean oil prices have doubled, the effects of inflation and rising food costs are already being felt. By increasing both oil and protein, ZeaKal says PhotoSeed has created a more profitable way to densify nutrition, while keeping food prices stable.

“PhotoSeed is a game-changer as it addresses producer and consumer demands with a hat trick product offering wrapped in a single technology,” said ZeaKal co-founder and CEO Han Chen. “By translating carbon into nutrition, we can bring meaningful benefits to farmers, processors and end users while also ensuring these food and feed products align with consumer values. Going forward, we aim to engage everyone across the entire supply chain to ensure (that) healthier, more sustainable and affordable food is the industry standard.”

Gro Alliance

Earlier this year, ZeaKal launched an initiative to build a “NewType” agriculture system to capture and share premiums from better composition, processing advantages and improved sustainability metrics with farmers and producers.

In February, ZeaKal announced a partnership with Gro Alliance, the largest, independently owned contract seed corn and soybean seed production company in the United States, around the”NewType” supply chain model, which it describes as a “closed loop” U.S. system to capture and share premiums from better composition, processing advantages, and improved sustainability metrics with farmers and producers.

In announcing the relationship, Gro Alliance and ZeaKal said the partnership underscored the need to diversify farmer incomes and address consumer demands for nutrient rich crops and sustainably sourced grain.

“For the past 80 years, we’ve helped growers access innovation to stay competitive, and yet the current system disincentivizes the adoption of new technologies that create value beyond just yield,” Gro Alliance President Jim Schweigert said in February. “Through this partnership, we will help ZeaKal accelerate the adoption of PhotoSeed to enhance and diversify profitability for growers while building a stronger long-term soybean market in the U.S.”

Beyond Gro Alliance’s existing U.S. footprint spanning eight states from North Dakota to Indiana, its global operations will provide ZeaKal with access to additional counter season seed expansion in Latin America.


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