With global fears of food insecurity on the rise, a wind is blowing in favour of genetically-modified farming in Argentina.
GM crops, which have for years been heavily criticised by environmentalists, are benefitting from new technological developments and health and safety approvals overseas.
Argentina has an abundance and large variety of genetically-modified products on offer. Its soybeans, maize, cotton, and even wheat (which is still in an experimental phase) are enjoying a raised profile due to the war in Ukraine and this summer’s intense drought in Europe, which was linked to climate change.
Since genetically modified soybeans were first planted in Argentina in 1996, crops have expanded to 24 million hectares, and more is on the way.
“We aim to reach 40 percent of cultivable land [for wheat] that is sown in Argentina in the next three to five years,” Federico Trucco, CEO of the agro-biotechnology firm Bioceres, told AFP.
Bioceres developed a drought-resistant wheat strain known as HB4.
“It is for areas where today wheat production is limited by [the availability of] water,” he explained.
Argentina will experience its worst wheat season in 12 years in 2023, due to the drought caused by a third consecutive cycle of the ‘La Niña’ weather phenomenon, according to the Rosario Grain Exchange.
The HB4 wheat strain, which Bioceres developed in partnership with the state-run CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) research council and the National University of Litoral, was based on a drought-tolerant gene taken from a sunflower.
“Everything that is planted is for the purpose of obtaining seeds for future sowing, not for processing and consumption,” Trucco said.
“There is no large-scale commercialisation because we don’t yet have the right varieties in the right quantity,” he added.
The company aims to sell HB4 wheat in Argentina and Brazil within the next three years, and then to market it in Australia in about five years’ time.
The planting of HB4 was approved in Argentina last May, while Brazil and Australia have allowed the use of HB4 flour since 2020.
HB4 wheat also obtained approval from the US Food and Drug administration last June, while in April, China signed off on the use of HB4 soybeans, which had been under review since 2016, a major boost for Argentine GMs.
GM crops make up 63 percent of Argentina’s total agricultural area. The country accounts for 13 percent of the world’s GM crops area, the third-largest producer behind the United States and Brazil.
Environmentalists are concerned that the intervention of biotechnology into agriculture will have long-term health consequences because in favours the use of increasingly toxic herbicides.
“You have to weigh up not only the effect of the individual herbicide but the way it interacts with other chemicals,” Guillermo Folguera, a biologist and CONICET researcher, told AFP.
There are also concerns that the advance of GM crops will cause the deterioration of biodiversity and soil due to shifting agricultural frontiers, as happened in the late 1990s during the soy boom.
“Soil deterioration caused by intense mono-cultivation results in lower productivity, which then needs to be compensated for using fertilisers,” Folguera points out.
In Gualeguaychú, 240 kilometres north of the capital in Entre Ríos Province, a ban on the sowing of HB4 wheat is being debated. In 2014 the use of glyphosate, a herbicide essential for the cultivation of soy, was vetoed.
“It is highly likely that a GM wheat field will contaminate a normal wheat field. Cross-contamination is risky because it's irreversible,” warned Folguera.
This could spoil exports to countries where GM products are still banned, warned Gustavo Idígoras, president of the Chamber of the Oil Industry and the Grain Export Centre.
“We will not accept a single grain of HB4 wheats in shipments because that is absolutely banned in any market. Biotechnology is the only way to address the world’s food security problem, but it has to happen alongside commercial and consumer acceptance,” he said.
by AFP / Gustavo Saita & Sonia Ávalos