Argentina OKs genetically modified wheat

Researchers say the variety, in which a sunflower gene was inserted, is 20 percent more productive during drought years

Argentina has become the first country in the world to approve transgenic wheat for cultivation and consumption with varieties designed to yield well under drought conditions.

Bioceres Crop Solutions Corp., based in the central Argentine city of Rosario, announced the approval of its HB4 drought-tolerant wheat on Oct. 8.

The company reports that its HB4 varieties yielded 20 percent more on average during growing seasons affected by drought in field trials over the past 10 years.

The HB4 event (gene transformation) inserts a gene from the common sunflower using Agrobacterium, a soil bacterium that has become a workhorse in genetic engineering. HB4 has already been deployed in soybeans and approved in both Brazil and the United States.

Drought-tolerant wheat caught the attention of crop developers and agencies in Saskatchewan, appropriate in a year that has seen little rain since late summer and extremely dry soil conditions in many parts of the province.

“The actual performance of the wheat, we’d be very interested in that and understanding how the mechanism for conferring more drought tolerance works,” said Harvey Brooks, general manager at the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission. “We’re very interested in that aspect of it.”

Brooks emphasizes that the success of HB4 wheat hinges on market acceptance. While it has been approved in Argentina, that country exports 85 percent of its crop to neighbouring Brazil, which has yet to sign off.

“Brazil has to approve it before it can become commercialized,” he said. “I think it has some way to go yet.”

Argentina produces about 20 million tonnes of wheat annually, making it Latin America’s largest producer of the crop and 12th in the world. By comparison, Canada’s output, at more than 30 million tonnes places it seventh, behind Australia.

Canada is likewise a trading nation, exporting about 80 percent of its wheat crop. This means great care must be taken with which tools are used to develop new varieties. Genetic engineering, and transgenics specifically, are particularly sensitive.

Transgenic wheat research has been conducted since at least the late 1990s, notably for herbicide resistance. While no varieties have been registered, they have occasionally caused export problems. In 2018, for example, discovery of a few glyphosate-resistant wheat plants in Alberta briefly disrupted Canadian wheat exports to Asian nations with strict bans on transgenics.

As a staple food — wheat provides 20 percent of humanity’s protein consumption — the crop has a special place in terms of people’s attitudes.

“Wheat by its nature has always been very political,” Brooks said.

But there is more than one way to achieve improved varieties. For example, Brooks said the recent completion of a map of the wheat genome means methods like marker-assisted breeding become much more powerful. Crop developers can test varieties for the qualities they are looking for without having to grow the plants to maturity.

Still, the transgenic solution has its appeal. Bioceres touts HB4 wheat and soybeans as important tools to respond to climate change. In parts of the world where temperature and daylight conditions could permit two crops a year, often lack of soil moisture prevents a second crop. HB4 varieties can overcome this problem, sequestering more carbon in the process particularly in no-till systems.

In the process, the company argues, more food can be produced on existing land, alleviating pressure to develop marginal or wild lands.

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