PERGAMINO, Argentina, Sept 20 (Reuters) - In fields near
Argentine farm town Pergamino, spiky green shoots of wheat
stretch in neat rows to the horizon, a crop developers hope will
boost yields of the grain thanks to a single gene borrowed from
sunflowers helping it better tolerate drought.
Reached along a dusty farm track, the field is one of dozens
of sites growing a genetically modified (GM) wheat strain called
HB4, developed by local firm Bioceres and state
scientists. Argentina, the world's No. 6 wheat exporter, gave
commercial planting approval to HB4 in 2020. It was the first GM
wheat strain in the world to receive such approval.
Its backers say HB4, also modified to tolerate the herbicide
glufosinate-ammonium, could help ward off food shortages at a
time when climate change has led to severe droughts in China,
North America and Europe, and a war between major growers Russia
and Ukraine has snarled food supply chains.
Many environmental and consumer groups have resisted GM
wheat, fearing unforeseen side-effects from changes to the
genome in a grain used in bread, pasta and other staples.
Genetic modifications have long been used in soy and corn, used
predominantly for animal feed.
Bioceres is leading the way globally towards commercializing
GM wheat, Reuters found from interviews with the firm and
importers, documents on U.S. field trials obtained through a
freedom of information request and a rare visit to the Argentina
The firm has gained varying levels of approvals in Brazil,
Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand. It is using blockchain and
georeferencing to avoid contamination with regular wheat, a risk
local farmers fear could prompt import bans.
"There is some ignorance about what transgenic is, it is not
a monster," said Raquel Chan, biochemist and researcher at the
National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET)
who led development of the strain, now licensed to Bioceres.
She explained the plant was "almost indistinguishable" from
normal wheat, but that it could better tolerate a lack of water
due to an extra gene edited in from the sunflower plant.
"It's something that could have happened in nature and has
in fact happened in other instances... Normally it takes
thousands of years. We just did it faster."
HB4 could improve crop yields 20% versus regular wheat under
dry and warm conditions, according to a 2020 academic paper,
published in Frontiers in Plant Science and on which Chan was a
Even with Argentina's approval, Bioceres has yet to start
selling the GM wheat for commercial use in the South American
country. It is also testing it in neighboring Brazil.
GM WHEAT: STILL TABOO?
In the Bioceres laboratories in Argentina's inland grains
port hub of Rosario, on the banks of the Parana river, Reuters
saw scientists working on strains of soy, a GM crop long
established in the global food supply chain.
GM wheat, however, has long been taboo.
"The main concern is the possibility that GM wheat and
non-GM wheat could end up mixing," said Julio Calzada, chief
economic analyst at Argentina's Rosario grains exchange.
"This could spark bans in international markets and
Argentina needs these $4.5 billion dollars in exports. They're
key at such a complicated moment for the country's economy."
No other global seed company has publicly endeavored to
develop GM wheat since 2004, when giant seed maker Monsanto, now
owned by Bayer AG, dropped plans to develop GM wheat that could
withstand its weed killer Roundup. Consuming countries were
threatening bans of U.S. wheat, even though the company has long
sold corn and soy whose genomes were changed to withstand
Roundup, or glyphosate.
In 2020, Bayer agreed to pay billions of dollars to settle
lawsuits by people who claimed they were harmed by its
U.S. Department of Agriculture records show agribusiness
companies BASF SE, Biogemma USA Corp, and Pioneer
Hi-Bred International, owned by Corteva Inc, received
permits for GM wheat trials in the United States in recent
BASF told Reuters it discontinued the trials in 2019 and is
developing wheat through traditional breeding methods. Corteva
said it does not intend to commercialize wheat from its trials.
Biogemma conducted field trials only for research and
development, according to owner Limagrain. Bayer said it is not
working with GM wheat.
Bioceres has said it is trying to get commercial approval
from the U.S. and Australian governments for planting HB4 wheat
in those countries.
In Indonesia, top buyer of Argentina's wheat behind Brazil,
the head of the wheat flour mills association Ratna Sari Loppies
played down contamination worries, but said millers there would
not yet buy Argentina's GM wheat to avoid a "negative" impact on
their own exports of consumer wheat products.
Brazil, which hopes to boost its own wheat harvest and
exports of the grain, appears to have softened its stance.
Rubens Barbosa, president of the Brazilian flour millers
association Abitrigo, said he believes Brazil might approve HB4
wheat. In 2020 he had threatened to halt wheat imports from
Argentina after its government approved Bioceres' GM wheat.
Brazil approved flour made from HB4 wheat in 2021.
"The seeds that will come and be planted in the north of
Cerrado will have higher yields," he said in August, referring
to the GM strain. "All of these factors justify optimism related
to output and Brazil's self-sufficiency in wheat production."
THE 'MESSI' GENE
In the Pergamino test fields, Reuters crossed regular farm
gates and fences to access the growing area estimated at some 80
hectares where the GM wheat strain was planted.
Bioceres said it has taken strong steps to avoid
cross-contamination, including using blockchain technology in a
"preserved identity production system" to ensure traceability of
the HB4 strain.
The crop is audited at planting and harvesting. Planters
must georeference in a computer system the areas planted with
HB4 and any work done in those fields. Growers receive financial
incentives to ensure compliance and regular inspections are
carried out, Bioceres said. Seeds stored in silo bags are
monitored until shipment and paperwork documents the chain of
custody of the seeds and grains during transport.
Federico Trucco, Bioceres chief executive, said these steps
help win over doubters. A new landmark is the recent approval in
Nigeria, the only country to fully approve imports of HB4 wheat
grains. He said the firm was pushing in Indonesia and Vietnam,
as well as North Africa. In Brazil consumers and millers were
warming up to GM wheat, he added.
"Approvals are happening much faster than anticipated,"
Trucco told Reuters in Rosario, where at a nearby laboratory HB4
wheat was being grown to produce seeds, with tall golden heads
of the cereal in a specialized greenhouse.
Trucco said Russia's invasion of Ukraine and severe droughts
in Europe and China had shifted the needle on drought-tolerant
GM wheat. The United Nations has warned https://www.undrr.org/gar2021-drought
that droughts could be the next "pandemic" as global
Chan, who helped develop HB4, cited Argentine soccer great
Lionel Messi to explain how the sunflower gene could help as
drought events increased worldwide.
"Wheat has a regulatory protein for response to water stress
but it is not as good," she said. "It's like the sunflower lends
it a good gene. Imagine yourself as a team of soccer players...
if you add in Messi to the mix you will obviously do better."
(Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Additional reporting by Ana
Mano in Sao Paulo, Sarah El Safty in Cairo and Bernadette
Christina in Jakarta and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by
Adam Jourdan, Caroline Stauffer and David Gregorio)