Argentina just made agricultural history becoming the first country in the world to approve genetically modified wheat. The government approved the HB4 genetically modified drought-resistant wheat by biotechnology firm Bioceres SA, though it may be some time before farmers actually begin growing the new variety as no country in the world accepts GM wheat. Bioceres says marketing won’t begin until Brazil, the country’s biggest wheat customer, approves the variety for import.
Despite the widespread adoption of GMO corn and soybeans, there is no available wheat that is genetically modified. Not that companies haven’t worked on it. Many seed companies have worked on GMO varieties but wheat producers have shied away from the technology. Some of that is due to concerns about higher seed prices but the main worry is consumer rejection. Most U.S. GMO corn and soybean varieties go toward animal feed or industrial uses, while most wheat is consumed by humans in one form or another. What’s more, some of the biggest U.S. wheat importers are not considered GMO-friendly, such as the EU and Japan.
Because of those same worries, some Argentine farmers have already said they would not plant the new GMO variety. Francisco Santillan, who manages farms in Cordoba, Santa Fe, and Buenos Aires, tells Reuters that he won’t plant it and recommends other farmers steer clear of it as well. “It seems risky in the sense that we could end up with crops that no one wants to buy,” he said.
That’s a legitimate risk as no GMO wheat variety has ever been approved for importation by any country. Never. Reuters checked in with Dave Green, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council, and he says he isn’t hearing anything about GMO wheat efforts in the U.S. “None of our export customers want any.” Monsanto discontinued its effort to develop a GMO wheat over a decade ago, in part because of opposition from North American grain merchants and growers worried that major foreign importers might start rejecting all American wheat if any GMO varieties were allowed to grow on U.S. soil.
Proponents of GMO technologies have long argued that wheat farmers are missing out on the benefits that soy and corn growers have witnessed, and for no good reason as science has proven GMOs are as safe as traditional varieties. They also argue that going forward, farmers as well as humans will need to adopt these varieties in order to keep up with climate change. In particular, the world needs crops that can survive droughts or grow with lower-quality water.
Bioceres says its HB4 seed varieties increased wheat yields by +20%, on average, during growing seasons impacted by drought throughout the last ten years of field trials. In addition to mitigating the negative impacts of drought, HB4 is also designed to facilitate double cropping, a practice that can be limited because of water availability. A gene from sunflowers is the backbone of Bioceres’ technology, which also includes its HB4 Soybean that also has approval in Argentina, as well as the U.S. and Brazil. Bioceres says it is pursuing regulatory approval for HB4 wheat in the U.S., Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, in addition to Brazil. (Sources: Reuters, World Grain, Genetic Literacy Project)