An environmental story can be spun for GM wheat

The question of whether the world wants genetically modified wheat has arisen again following Argentina’s conditional approval of a new altered variety designed to be drought tolerant and herbicide resistant.

The approval is contingent on getting an OK from Brazil, its biggest market, and that country’s wheat association Abitrigo says a survey of wheat millers shows 85 percent reject the idea of using GM wheat.

This is the type of reaction to GM wheat we have seen before, but the discussion around the issue this time might broaden as the proponents try to engage the public’s growing concerns about climate change and the potential impact on food production.

If this effort is successful it could start to open the door to GM wheat production around the world.

GM corn, soybeans and canola are widely grown and consumed, but GM wheat has always been seen in a different light.

The distinction often hangs on the fact that wheat is generally consumed directly by humans, whereas a lot of corn and oilseeds are used as livestock feed.

Also many consumers saw the genetic trait of herbicide tolerance as a drawback rather than a benefit.

The result is that the wheat sector is the holdout among the major global crops to embrace genetic modification.

Twenty years ago seed companies were hard at work on GM wheat.

Monsanto was on the road to seek regulatory approval in Canada and the United States for a glyphosate tolerant line.

But in 2004 it decided not to commercialize it in the face of a divided grower community, rejection by some wheat buyers and worries among marketers, chief among them the Canadian Wheat Board, that segregating GM and non-GM wheat would be a nightmare ultimately leading to them being shut out of major markets.

But a few years later certain wheat grower groups in Canada, the U.S. and Australia called for GM wheat research to continue because they were worried that their crop was falling behind its major competitors in terms of weed control options and yield advances.

Breeding companies conducted field trials in the U.S. and Canada, leading to controversy when occasionally GM wheat was discovered inadvertently mixed into conventional seed or found growing where it shouldn’t.

As recently as 2018 a small amount of GM wheat of unknown origin was discovered growing in southern Alberta. It was destroyed but it caused much apprehension when Japan and South Korea suspended wheat imports from Canada until they confirmed that the seed had not made it into the food or feed system.

So GM wheat remains controversial. But the debate over the situation in Argentina might include additional topics to those focused on previously.

The Argentine wheat was developed by Bioceres collaborating with government and university research teams in Argentina. The university group in the 1990s discovered a gene in sunflowers called hahb-4 that enhanced drought resistance. The company dubbed it HB4 Drought Technology.

The gene was prized because it provided improved yields in dry conditions and, importantly, did not hold back yields when growing conditions were good.

HB4 technology has been applied to wheat and soybeans and Bioceres says it can improve yields in those crops by 10 to 20 percent in drought years with no yield penalty in good years.

The Bioceres plan is to incorporate its soybean and wheat into a closed loop, identity preserved system with its own growers and end users. The GM seed would be treated with its own inoculants, biological fungicides and insecticides and plant growth promoting rhizobacteria and planted in rotation using zero till.

It argues this combination will lead to better and more stable yielding crops in established agricultural areas that use less chemical fertilizer, are better at sequestering soil carbon and that reduce the pressure to grow crops on cleared virgin land or forests.

It is revealing that Bioceres thinks its best route to success is to keep its products in an identity preserved closed loop of only willing participants.

The vast majority of the world’s wheat buyers and processors still think there is no upside for them to buy GM wheat, a suspicious product in the minds of many consumers, even though many already eat products with ingredients from GM crops.

Companies selling products made from Bioceres wheat would have to weave a compelling environmental story to break through preconceived prejudices.

And that might find a growing audience as each year we see more evidence of environmental degradation and stress on wild flora and fauna.

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