In 2020, PepsiCo unveiled the first-ever full sequencing of the oat genome. In collaboration with Corteva Agriscience, the genome sequence was publicly released in a bid to advance oat research. Since then, the data has been accessed more than 5,000 times.
Now, in partnership with La Trobe University, an annotated oat transcriptome has also been released. This helps provide insight into the specific segments of the genome code for genes – and what characteristics those genes code for.
“The work we are doing with La Trobe University recently on the transcriptome helps us identify what the opportunity set is, because we can see those genes, find them,” Denise Lefebvre, Senior Vice President Global Foods R&D at PepsiCo, explained.
So, what opportunity does this latest update unearth?
Lefebvre told FoodNavigator that PepsiCo sees potential positive impact around both sustainable agriculture and nutrition. “It was a fundamental unlock to have the genetic pool in front of us so we could help identify and breed traits that would deliver sustainable agriculture and better nutrition.”
Tapping the ‘mighty oat’: Sustainable agriculture and enhanced nutrition
As a crop, the ‘mighty oat’ already performs well on a number of sustainability metrics in the agricultural system. For instance, we were told, ‘oat cultivation is very helpful to soil health’.
However, Lefebvre suggested, within the context of increasing pressure on the food system from climate change and a growing population there is room for improvement.
“We think the biggest opportunities pertaining to the oat are disease resistance, drought resistance and reduced water usage on that crop,” she indicated.
PepsiCo believes that tapping into these opportunities will help it deliver on its PepsiCo+ commitments, which include a transition towards regenerative agriculture systems. “We think disease resistance, drought resistance, is going to be important for the oat to survive and do well. We want them to use less water. These elements are crucial for future sustainable agriculture practices and part of our PepsiCo+ commitments…. But what’s really important is that it is better for the planet,” the company’s R&D SVP explained.
As well as offering a boost to sustainable agriculture through crop science, PepsiCo believes it can access benefits in the field of nutrition through this approach.
“One of the things about the oat is, it's mighty. It has so much power in it. It has beta glucan for heart health, there is extra fibre, it has protein,” Lefebvre observed.
“A lot of our Quaker products [already] talk about heart health. But we also have high protein, which we know consumers desire and is satiating. Because of their satiating component they can give long lasting energy. Oats are also very high in fibre, which is one of the big nutritional compositions that's important to humanity everywhere. Extra fibre in their diet.”
PepsiCo is primarily focused on the opportunity to increase the beta glucan, protein and fibre content and to support yield consistency. “There are some other benefit territories that we continue to explore and study in the area,” Lefebvre added.
Genome mapping will accelerate crop science
The advances PepsiCo and its partners have made in identifying and mapping the genome will act as an accelerator for the development of oat varieties that deliver sustainable nutrition, the company hopes.
To this end, PepsiCo is actively involved in plant breeding and the application of cutting-edge crop science.
“We actively work in breeding in a facility where we study and breed different oats. We also work with farmers and milling associations in different ways too,” we were told.
To date, the focus of this work is on traditional crop breeding – a process that PepsiCo says can be greatly accelerated by an understanding of the genome. “If you think about traditional breeding techniques without the genome sequences, there are a lot of different ways to try and hopefully get the best outcome… With the genome sequence we believe it is going to be much more targeted and accelerate breeding, which will be a better knock on for sustainability and nutrition,” Lefebvre said.
However, the company is not experimenting in the world of so-called new plant breeding techniques. It is not looking at genetic modification and developments gene editing tools like CRISPR – which can be used to remove genetic material but do not add new code – are only being monitored at this time.
“There are opportunities for CRISPR that we need to understand a lot more, it is a very intriguing area… We are very focused on traditional breeding practices. CRISPR technology is not genetically modified, it is a different thing we need to understand and study.
“You really have to listen and learn to understand the benefits. And we have to listen to consumers as well to understand their point of view. We need to be open minded about everything and follow the science. And we also need to follow our consumers. When we feel like there is good intersection of the two, that is a very exciting area.”
Collaboration is a ‘powerful’ way to move the system
The work that PepsiCo is doing to improve the quality of the oats it sources could certainly offer some benefits for brands like Quaker, affording product development and consumer communications opportunities. However, the consumer goods giant views its work in elevating the oat as largely pre-competitive.
“We don't really think about it as holding competitive advantage for PepsiCo. We think when you design a product there is a difference there for consumers. But in terms of the imprint of the crop, we believe those could be broad advantages used by everyone.
“When it comes to sustainable technologies, those are things that we think you'll see a lot of us talking about democratising them and making them available publicly. We know it takes everyone to do what's right for the planet.”
Indeed, Lefebvre believes the collaborative approach that took place behind the scenes to understand the oat genome was critical. Without bringing the private and public sectors together in this way, progress would have been slowed, she insisted.
“We believe collaboration is a much more powerful way to move the agricultural system. We opened the gnome publicly because we can accelerate nutrition innovation that much better globally as an open source with multiple partners. We believe the mighty oat can play a big role in nutrition in the future, bringing benefits for the public and planet.”