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The Science in Our Food
World Hunger, Greater Crop Yields and the Benson Hill Approach Posted by James Bafaro
It is a challenging question. A 2009 United Nations report – since validated by numerous other studies – indicates food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand from the world’s growing population, and that innovative strategies will be needed to combat global hunger.
The second part of that report – the call for innovation – is what forms the basis of the mission of Benson Hill Biosystems, the St. Louis startup company that believes the best way to help farmers squeeze more productivity out of their farmland is by improving that process we all remember from our high school science classes: photosynthesis.
Certainly you remember the term. Photosynthesis is the process used by plants to convert sunlight into the chemical energy those plants need to grow. What your high school science teacher may not have told you, however, is that photosynthesis is a pretty inefficient process.
Only about two percent of the sunlight that falls on a field of corn, for example, is preserved as chemical energy. In sugar cane, which is one of the world’s most efficient plants, only about eight percent of the light absorbed by the plant is preserved. The rest is wasted.
Benson Hill’s scientists are working to make the photosynthetic process more efficient by using the genes already inside a plant — the genes that drive photosynthesis — effectively enhancing their function and efficiency to allow a plant to produce a better yield. Benson Hill President and CEO Matt Crisp notes the company’s approach differs from the traditional ag-biotech industry approach of boosting crop yield by protecting plants from plants from pests and weeds with insect resistance and herbicide tolerance traits.
At a recent agriculture showcase in St. Louis, Crisp indicated corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and sugarcane were the company’s “priority” crops.
Benson Hill’s name is an homage to two pioneers in the area of photosynthetic research, American biologist Andrew Benson and British plant biochemist Robin Hill.
Given the worldwide call for innovative technologies to address the issue of feeding a growing global population, the number of scientists seeking to heed that call could form a crowded field. It’s not a problem, says Crisp. “World hunger is an issue that is bigger than any solution (the world’s scientists) have been able to put forward so far. There is a lot of room for a lot of folks. At Benson Hill we hope that by focusing on photosynthetic efficiency, we’re building expertise around a specific application that’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
Last month, the company announced it had secured more than a million dollars in financing, including investments from the Helix Fund, and the private entrepreneur support organization BioGenerator in St. Louis, the Missouri Technology Corporation, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, among others. Benson Hill maintains a facility in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
The decision to locate a facility in St. Louis was an easy one, says Crisp, who notes being in close proximity to top flight talent and facilities at organizations such as the Danforth Plant Science Center and Monsanto and support from organizations such as the BioGenerator, give Benson Hill an advantage.
With the world’s population expected to swell from seven billion people to 9.6 billion by 2050, with a rising middle class in China and India consuming more food, and with more farmland being set aside for biofuels, Benson Hill’s mission becomes even more critical, a fact that, obviously, is not lost on Crisp. “Being able to say at the end of the day, that we played a role in increasing crop yields and eradicating world hunger, is obviously a huge motivating factor.”
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