NEW STRAIN of drought-resistant wheat is attempting to dispel myths surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have long been viewed as incompatible with sustainable agriculture but may be crucial to its survival.
HB4, created by the Argentinian company Bioceres, has recently been deemed safe for humans to consume by the Food and Drug Administration, bringing this new variety closer to commercial development in the United States. Although HB4 has already received approval for production in Australia and Argentina, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) must still approve the crop, which is likely pending assessments of the crop’s environmental impact.
For two main reasons, this would be an agricultural milestone: First off, unlike the majority of GMO crops currently grown in the US, which are used for animal feed or derivatives like corn syrup, HB4 would be consumed directly by people. It would also be the first significant food crop created with drought resistance in mind. A crop that can better withstand the extreme heat and drought that are destroying farms from the American West to Somalia and Italy cannot be overstated. Just ask India, which recently prohibited the majority of wheat exports to protect its domestic supply and exacerbated a global shortage already made urgent by Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
However, a lot of buyers and investors are still dubious about the worth and safety of GMO wheat, particularly those who aren’t among the 53 million Americans who are currently dependent on food banks to survive. I can understand it; I used to shudder at the thought of consuming GMO bread or anything else for that matter. However, I discovered that there is no scientific support for my worries after looking into it.
Because most of us don’t understand the process—which involves using DNA from other plants, animals, or even bacteria to create desired traits in crops—consumers have been misled into believing that eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) causes harmful side effects. This misplaced fear has been a problem for decades.
Critics have made up false worries about everything from allergies and cancer to the loss of nutritional value in GMO foods. Others are concerned that the altered genetic material will contaminate ecosystems if it escapes into the wild. Many people have mistrust for the Big Ag firms developing new GMO crops because they put human safety before profit. GMO food has thus been largely outlawed in Europe and a large portion of Africa.
However, there is no evidence to date that GMOs are harmful to human health. In fact, the safety of this plant breeding technology has been confirmed by every major scientific organization, including the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences. Additionally, there are steps that can be taken to prevent “genetic drift” from GMO crops in neighboring fields. GMOs are not inherently harmful to human health or the environment, any more than watching television is harmful to your intelligence. This is something that consumers need to understand. GMO breeding is merely a technological tool; the risk or advantage depends on how it is used.
Since ancient times, humans have selected and bred plants to produce ever-bigger, softer grains, softer, less bitter vegetables, and fatter, sweeter fruits. Prior to GMO, those traits were acquired through interbreeding between plants of the same or closely related species. Due to their rapid results and ability to draw from a variety of organisms, GMOs significantly expand the range of possibilities. New plant varieties can be produced using gene-editing tools in two to three years as opposed to ten years or more using traditional breeding techniques. Even faster and more affordably, gene-editing tools like Crispr, which can “delete” undesirable traits from a genome, can produce results.
One of the most powerfully advantageous traits incorporated into commercial crops today is derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), a common soil bacterium that enables the plant to produce its own internal, non-toxic insecticides. The development of Bt-integrated crops such as the Bt-integrated corn that is now grown all over the world and the Bt-integrated eggplants that are grown in Bangladesh has greatly reduced the use of chemical pesticides, saving farmers money and enhancing soil health.
Scientists from Bioceres added genetic material from a sunflower that controls how the plant uses the moisture it channels and stores to create wheat that is resistant to drought. Among the genes in sunflowers that control water efficiency is HB4, which was found by Argentine researcher Raquel Chan. Bioceres licensed the gene after Chan and her team’s laboratory tests demonstrated that plants, including soybeans, could flourish in hot, dry conditions with infrequent waterings.
According to the company, in field tests, its GMO wheat variety increased yields by an average of 20% under water-strapped conditions. In order to find additional genes that could help food crops become drought-tolerant, much more research must be done and these figures must be supported by an independent analysis. However, this development gives millions of farmers around the world who are currently dealing with difficult circumstances—conditions that will only get worse—hope.
History has demonstrated the negative effects of improperly applied genetic engineering in agriculture. The crop known as Roundup Ready, developed by Monsanto, contains genetics that renders it resistant to pesticides that almost universally kill other plant species. Roundup Ready is now almost synonymous with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Ninety percent of the corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the US are now herbicide-tolerant plants. However, many of the products have backfired, creating “superweeds” that are resistant to the chemicals and necessitate the use of more and more potent weed killers.
The main issue I have with the Bioceres product is this: It has also added a gene for herbicide tolerance in addition to the drought-tolerant HB4 gene. Given how prevalent the trait has become in agricultural markets, I can understand the motivation. Herbicides’ negative effects, however, cast doubt on the HB4 innovation’s fundamental principles and its revolutionary climate benefits. Although insufficient to disqualify the new crop, this shouldn’t prevent the USDA from approving HB4 wheat for industrial production.
Instead of debating whether or not GMO crops should be developed at all, we need to concentrate on the uses that will benefit our planet the most. Genetically modified plants with wider, deeper roots are being developed by scientists in an effort to significantly increase soil carbon storage. The development of GMO and gene-edited crop varieties of staple grains and specialty foods, such as coffee, cacao, citrus, and wine grapes, is also being researched. These crops will be tolerant to many other climate pressures, such as flooding, invasive insects, bacterial blights, and shifting seasons, in addition to heat and drought.
The most food insecure populations in the most vulnerable climates will benefit from the successful efforts, even though some of them will fall short. The bottom line: As long as the technology is used responsibly, mounting environmental pressures have started to support the use of contentious agricultural tools that can help tip the scales back in favor of humanity.