Controversial GM crop gives only two-thirds of the average yield for non-GM wheat. Report: Claire Robinson
Developments in Argentina regarding genetically modified (GM) wheat show that however determined governments are to boost GMOs in agriculture, the inherent weaknesses of the technology undermine their efforts. Although the Argentine government approved it for planting and the Brazilian government gave the nod for its import, the GM wheat is giving poor yields, around two-thirds of the average for non-GM wheat.
In early December 2021, the Brazilian government approved the import of GM wheat with tolerance to drought and the herbicide glufosinate ammonium (seen as a backup to glyphosate for tackling glyphosate-resistant weeds). The GM wheat is the product of a public-private collaboration of over 18 years between the Argentine company Bioceres and the research group of the Costal Agrobiotechnology Institute (CONICET-UNL), led by Dr Raquel Chan, who is responsible for the research.
As expected, the Ministry of Agriculture was the first to confirm and celebrate the news of this 100% Argentine GMO crop, as the Buenos Aires-based news outlet Canal Abierto reports. But the truth, says Canal Abierto, is that this new national GMO does not have widespread support – far from it – and has been criticised by both leading scientists and rural organisations.
But despite the criticism and the risk of potential contamination of cereal crops, the Argentine government gave the go-ahead for the sowing of some 52,775 hectares, of which some 40,116 have already been harvested. According to Canal Abierto, the yields were quite meagre, producing just 97,281 tons, which shows a very poor average productivity of 24 quintals per hectare. That is, about 1,000 kilos below the national average yield of traditional wheat estimated by the Buenos Aires Cereal Exchange, which stands at 34.4 quintals per hectare.
Story of a GMO
In May 2013, as Canal Abierto reports, the company Bioceres obtained a license for the use and exploitation of the HB4 gene, a biotechnological event developed by Argentine state scientists in which the plant genome is manipulated by inserting a sunflower gene that increases resistance to drought and provides tolerance to the herbicides glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate.
Over the years, the firm achieved the approval of the National Biotechnology Commission (CONABIA) and the National Agricultural Health and Quality Service (SENASA). In fact, last year the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of the Nation added its signature to the development, conditional on the acceptance of Brazil (the main export market for Argentine cereals).
Simultaneously with the government approval, around 1,400 scientists from CONICET and 30 public universities published a letter in which they warned: “This authorization refers to an agribusiness model that has proven to be harmful in environmental and social terms, that is the main cause of biodiversity loss, that does not solve the problems of the food system, and that also threatens the health of our people by jeopardising food security and sovereignty.”
They pointed out, “Hundreds of research studies on environmental and health damages have been published in international scientific journals, and many more testimonies and denunciations have been produced by communities, health workers and social movements in our region.” They continued, “There is no doubt that the current hegemonic production model of agribusiness concentrates capital, deepens economic and social inequality, causes the deterioration of the health of communities and ecosystems and accelerates the loss of biodiversity, threatening food security and leaving in its wake environmentally and socially devastated territories.”
In October 2021, critical researchers said that despite the warnings of experts, and its commercialisation still being illegal, more than 50,000 hectares planted with HB4 wheat had been detected throughout the country.
According to Canal Abierto, the complaint against the GM wheat developed by Bioceres is that it does not have environmental impact assessments in all biomes or long-term trials on its chronic and carcinogenic effects. The reasons for these “oversights”? In the first place, almost non-existent regulation. Several environmental groups have denounced the conflicts of interest of state regulatory agencies, which are in many cases made up of representatives of agricultural corporations.
For example, the Clean Wheat Collective – Scientists for Health and the Environment stated, “It is advertised as a transgenic product resistant to drought, and a promising advance in Argentine science, but what is hidden is that it is actually a new technological package for the use of agrochemicals. Indeed, it is has been developed to tolerate glufosinate ammonium, a herbicide restricted since 2013 in the European Union due to the harmful consequences it has on health, as its use leaves enough traces on the land and in food to cause damage to the human nervous system, as well as alarming environmental damage, as shown by various scientific studies.”
A recent report by the environmental group Rights of Nature stated, “It must be taken into account that drought tolerance is only a smokescreen. In reality HB4 wheat also expresses the gene that gives it tolerance to glufosinate ammonium as an alternative [or addition] to the agrotoxin glyphosate. This is particularly serious because wheat is an essential food that is part of the daily diet in our society, and with tolerance to glufosinate (even without considering the genetic alteration), a significant risk is added to the population’s diet when consuming bread, flour or pasta with residues of this agrochemical, which operates in the human body as an endocrine disruptor.”
As if the rejection of the international market and specialists were not enough, criticism has also rained down from the Argentine Rural Society, which represents livestock producers, the Argentine Agrarian Federation, which represents rural entrepreneurs, the Argentine Rural Confederations (CRA), an employers’ organization for rural producers, and the farming union Coninagro. “Such a wide scale of production [of GM wheat] makes it really impossible to control via official regulation, which is why contamination of non-genetically modified wheat will inevitably occur,” these organisations warned.
“Incredible” that GM model is not being questioned – researcher
“Those who create the problem [e.g. glyphosate-resistant weeds] sell the solution [a glufosinate-tolerant crop], and the treadmill continues with increased costs that end up being collectively shared, while the huge profits are distributed among just a few,” Cecilia Gargano, a researcher and specialist in the history of public policy in science, told Canal Abierto. “After 26 years of GMO agriculture, with visible health damage and countless complaints, it is incredible that the model as a whole is not being questioned.”