September 22, 2022
Argentina focuses on GM wheat as drought and war affect global crops
Backers for the genetically modified (GM) wheat strain called HB4, developed by Argentinian company Bioceres and state scientists, said it could help prevent food shortages at a time when severe droughts have been brought on by climate change in China, North America, and Europe and food supply chains have been hampered by a conflict between major growers Russia and Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Argentina, the sixth-largest exporter of wheat, approved HB4's commercial planting in 2020. It is first GM wheat strain in the world to obtain such approval, and it has been modified to tolerate the herbicide glufosinate-ammonium.
Fearing unintended consequences from changes to the genome of a grain used to make bread, pasta, and other staples, many environmental and consumer advocacy groups have opposed GM wheat. Soy and corn, which are primarily used for animal feed, have long been genetically modified.
The commercialization of GM wheat is being spearheaded by Bioceres on a global scale. Different levels of support were given to it in Brazil, Nigeria, Australia, and New Zealand. To prevent contamination with regular wheat, which local farmers worry could lead to import bans, it is using blockchain and georeferencing.
Raquel Chan, a biochemist and researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), who oversaw development of the strain that has since been licenced to Bioceres, said there is some ignorance about what transgenic is.
The extra gene from the sunflower plant was inserted into the plant, which was almost indistinguishable from regular wheat but could tolerate a lack of water better.
Chan said it could have occurred naturally and has in fact occurred in other circumstances. Normally, it takes a very long time, they simply completed it more quickly.
According to a 2020 academic paper published in Frontiers in Plant Science, HB4 could increase crop yields by 20% compared to regular wheat under dry and warm conditions.
Despite receiving Argentina's blessing, Bioceres has yet to begin marketing the GM wheat for use in the South American nation. It is also being tested in Brazil, a neighbouring country.
Reuters observed scientists working on soy strains, a GM crop long established in the global food supply chain, in the Bioceres laboratories in Rosario, Argentina's major inland grain port, which is located on the banks of the Parana river.
However, GM wheat has long been frowned upon.
The main worry is the potential for GM and non-GM wheat to mix, according to Julio Calzada, chief economist at Rosario Grain Exchange in Argentina.
Calzada said Argentina needs these US$4.5 billion in exports, but doing so might result in bans on international markets. At such a challenging time for the nation's economy, they are essential.
Since 2004, when massive seed producer Monsanto, now owned by Bayer AG, abandoned plans to develop GM wheat that could withstand its weed killer Roundup, no other major seed company has publicly attempted to develop GM wheat. Even though the company has long sold corn and soy whose genomes were changed to withstand Roundup, or glyphosate, consuming countries were threatening to ban U.S. wheat.
In 2020, Bayer agreed to pay billions of dollars to settle legal claims brought by individuals who said its weedkiller had injured them.
Based on documents from the US Department of Agriculture, agribusiness firms BASF SE, BiogemmaUSA Corp, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, owned by Corteva Inc, were granted permission to test genetically modified wheat in the country in recent years.
BASF told Reuters that the trials were stopped in 2019 and wheat is now being developed using conventional breeding techniques. Corteva said it will not commercialise wheat as a result of its trials. Owner Limagrain said Biogemma only used field trials for research and development. Bayer said it was not working with GM wheat.
Bioceres said it is attempting to obtain commercial approval from the governments of the US and Australia in order to plant HB4 wheat there.
Ratna Sari Loppies, the head of the wheat flour mills association in Indonesia, which is Argentina's second-largest buyer of wheat after Brazil, downplayed concerns about contamination while stating that millers there would not yet purchase Argentina's GM wheat in order to prevent a "negative" impact on their own exports of consumer wheat products.
Brazil appears to have softened its stance in an effort to increase its own wheat harvest and exports of the grain. Rubens Barbosa, president of the Brazilian flour millers association Abitrigo, said Brazil may approve HB4 wheat. He had threatened to stop importing wheat from Argentina in 2020 after that country's government had approved Bioceres' GM wheat. In 2021, Brazil granted approval for HB4 wheat flour.
In order to ensure the traceability of the HB4 strain, Bioceres said they have taken strong precautions to prevent cross-contamination, including using blockchain technology in a "preserved identity production system."
These actions, according to Bioceres CEO Federico Trucco, help convince sceptics. The recent approval in Nigeria, the only nation to fully approve imports of HB4 wheat grains, marks a new milestone. He claimed that in addition to North Africa, the company was making inroads in Vietnam and Indonesia. Consumers and millers in Brazil were becoming more accepting of GM wheat, he continued.