Long abandoned and neglected, GM wheat receives renewed interest as climate change threatens global supply

Genetic modification remains a bone of contention today, especially when it comes to bio-engineering products solely meant for human consumption. The adoption of genetically modified crops is plagued by negative perceptions stemming from misunderstandings that begin from its very definition. According to the World Health Organization, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. It most commonly refers to organisms-often plants-that have been modified to achieve desired traits, like drought tolerance and pest resistance, using recombinant DNA techniques or genetic engineering.

GM Wheat on the Backburner

Despite the existence of GM crop technology for nearly three decades, progress in the development of GM wheat varieties has been limited. According to data from the USDA, commercially traded genetically engineered seeds for major field crops were introduced in 1996, with more than 90% of US corn, upland cotton, and soybeans being produced using genetically engineered varieties by 2022.  Analysts attribute the greater acceptance of GM corn and soybean crops to their primary use as livestock feed, particularly in the United States, where corn is not a staple food as it is in many African countries. In contrast, wheat has not received comparable enthusiasm thus far, as its primary usage is in human consumption, primarily for products such as bread, pasta, and processed flour.

Progress is expected to be slow as GM wheat still meets resistance from many countries prompting many grain companies and exporters to avoid the grain. Moreover, a lot of not-for-profit nongovernmental organizations, many based in Europe, including Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth International, have full-blown campaigns against GM wheat. “It’s disappointing to a lot of millers that wheat came late to the GM party and found the door locked,” said Richard C. Siemer, president, Siemer Milling Co., Teutopolis, Illinois, US.

Bioceres keeps the GM Wheat flame alive

Despite resistance, Bioceres Crop Solutions, an Argentina-based integrated biotech company of crop productivity solutions, has remained committed in advancing research in GM Wheat. Backed by decades of research, the company successfully developed a drought-tolerant variety of biotech wheat, HB4 wheat (OECD coded IND-ØØ412-7). HB4 wheat is a type of wheat that has been genetically modified by introducing sunflower genes to improve crop productivity. According to Bioceres, the HB4 gene encodes the protein HAHB4 (Helianthus Annuus Homeobox-4), which binds to specific sequences of wheat DNA and regulates the expression of certain genes.

According to Bioceres, the HB4 gene contains the HAHB4 protein (Helianthus Annuus Homeobox-4), which binds to specific wheat DNA sequences and regulates the expression of targeted genes. This protein naturally increases in response to environmental stress, such as drought, and delays the senescence process, allowing the crops to withstand periods of water scarcity. Bioceres reports that its HB4 drought-tolerance technology has demonstrated an average 20% increase in wheat yields under limited-water conditions. This characteristic is particularly advantageous for double-cropping systems, where effective water management plays a crucial role.

Drought opens window for adoption

While biotech wheat remains a bone of contention in many countries worldwide, long dry spells are forcing many countries that primarily rely on wheat for their subsistence to reconsider their hardline stance. Argentina which is increasingly struggling with drought saw an opportunity for HB4 wheat to help stabilize production and revenue. The South American country approved the world’s first genetically engineered wheat for cultivation and consumption in October 2020 after experiencing decreasing yields  since 2017, partially due to drought, with the 2020/21 season yields the second-lowest in ten years. Production expanded dramatically in 2021, and will continue to expand in 2022, after Argentina received regulatory approval in late 2021 for exports to Brazil, a major consumer of Argentina’s wheat.

Another boost for GM Wheat came in March 2023 when Brazil approved the cultivation and sale of drought-tolerant genetically modified wheat. The approval makes Brazil the second nation after Argentina to approve Bioceres’ HB4 wheat strain for cultivation. Colombia, Australia, and New Zealand have approved import of GM Wheat for use in food and feed but regulatory approval has not been granted for local production. In Indonesia, HB4 wheat importation is approved for feed use only. Having succeeded in Brazil and Argentina, Bioceres is now pushing for approval in Australia to release HB4 for planting in 2023.

In the USA, Bioceres and HB4 underwent a voluntary consultation period with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in June 2022, the FDA concluded its evaluation of HB4 allowing Bioceres to seek the US Department of Agriculture’s approval for planting. “The Bioceres product is of particular interest to our members because of its drought-tolerance trait,” said Jane DeMarchi, president of the North American Millers’ Association.

Bioceres still has a lot of steps to take before it is commercialized in the US and the timeline for USDA’s determination of Bioceres’ application to allow cultivation of HB4 is unclear.  To further complicate matters, the USDA, in a report that was presented in 2021 on the safety of HB4 wheat, provided that an independent scientific assessment of the application for the commercial release of HB4 Wheat presented concerns about the analysis of endogenous gene interruptions by genetic modification and its potential risk for consumers. “One issue of concern is that the endogenous transcription factor – HAHB4 protein that will be consumed as food / feed could not be extracted and evaluated; reason being that it is unfeasible to isolate the HAHB4 protein in the genetic plant in enough quantity and purity to be used for quantification, biochemical studies and characterization studies. Safety of this construct is not certain,” remarked the USDA.

In July 2022, Nigeria officially approved imports of drought- resistant bioceres’ hb4 wheat to reduce the high prices of wheat products in the country.


African countries take a fearful approach

According to Getachew Belay, an African expert on GM crops, Africa has historically been a laggard in accepting new agricultural technologies. He adds that much of the problem lies in their perception, exaggerated fear, and conflicting messages sent to policymakers for GM crops. Interestingly, according to an article by Reuters’ MacDonald Dzirutwe, in 2002, Zambia experienced a severe drought that left millions of its citizens starving but the government still rejected GM maize offered by donors, citing inadequate scientific information.

Nevertheless, according to a review paper titled Development of GM crops in Africa by the African Union Development Agency, many African countries have been adopting agricultural biotechnology to curb some of the challenges that face their crops and increase productivity. Some of the biotech crops cultivated in the continent include stem borer resistant maize, drought tolerant maize, maize resistant to maize streak virus, bananas with resistance to bacterial wilt, nematodes and weevils, bio-fortified bananas, bio-fortified sorghum, virus resistant cassava, bio-fortified cassava, pod borer resistant cowpea, weevil resistant sweet potato, and nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient and salt tolerant rice.

However, in a continent of 54 countries, only South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan have embraced the growing of GM crops. Egypt and South Africa are growing Bt maize, farmers in South Africa and Burkina Faso have been cultivating Bt cotton since its adoption in 1998 and 2008 respectively, and in 2012, farmers in Sudan also started growing Bt cotton. Other countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda have conducted field trials before deciding whether growing these crops is the right way to go. However, in spite of the pertinent misconceptions about biotech crops, the situation in many African countries is subject to change as each works out relevant legislation and policies for biotechnology.

Nigeria leads the way in GM wheat adoption

Despite the concerns over the consumption of GM wheat, the Nigeria Biosafety Committee ignored these gaps in data and knowledge while making their recommendation for the authorization of the importation of IND-ØØ412-7 wheat for food, feed, and processing in Nigeria. In July 2022, Nigeria officially approved imports of drought-resistant Bioceres’ HB4 wheat to reduce the high prices of wheat products in the country. The permit issued by Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency is valid up to July 2025. Nigeria, which was set to import 6.5 million tonnes of wheat through the 2022-2023 season, according to data from the USDA, will have a significant proportion of this wheat being of the HB4 variety.

A group of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Nigeria, however, criticized the permit granted to Trigall Genetics S.A. for importation of HB4 Wheat, citing concerns about its safety presented a USDA 2021 report. Akinbode Oluwafemi, Executive Director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), beseeched the government of Nigeria to commit to long term evaluation of the safety of the GM technology to ensure the safety of its citizens. “The government should ensure adequate support for our farmers and support agroecology which assures optimum productivity of healthy, and safe food while replenishing ecosystems,” he said.

A sustainable option

HB4’s ability to grow better with less water could help reduce land use. As Argentina’s wheat yields have fallen, there has been an expansion in the area planted. This is a pressure faced worldwide: in order to meet the growing global demand for crop products like wheat, there must be an increase in yield and/or the total area cultivated. On a global scale, such farmland expansion leads to deforestation, which releases greenhouse gasses and has negative impacts on biodiversity, as well as ecosystem services like water filtration. Since 2000, 102 million hectares of land — nearly the size of Egypt — globally have been converted from native vegetation to cropland (not including pasture and rangeland). Increasing yields is key to meeting growing food demand without farmland expansion. Without any increase in agricultural productivity, over 1 billion hectares of cropland — greater than the size of China — would need to be cleared globally by 2050 to meet projected demand.

Bioceres however says that its GMO wheat “showed higher yields than conventional varieties across all environments, with an average 43% yield improvement in targeted environments.”  Further the biotech company revealed that it observed a 12% increase in yields under moderate growing conditions, and a yield decrease of 11% under good growing conditions (the quality of growing conditions may include other factors in addition to drought). The yield decrease under good growing conditions has been addressed, and the improved seed will be phased in during the following seasons. Based on field results from the crop in Argentina, the Breakthrough Institute estimates that growing drought-tolerant HB4 wheat on one-third of Argentina’s wheat-growing area could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 0.86 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year (MtCO2e/yr) if yields increase 13%, and up to 1.29 MtCO2e/yr if yields increase 20%. These greenhouse gas emissions savings are equal to 34% and 51% of the yearly on-farm emissions from Argentina’s wheat production, respectively.

Is GM Food Safe

Safety concerns always crop up in every conversation around GM Food and G wheat is certainly no exception. Many conservatives usually refer to a 2008 study Hug which identified some potential risks associated with GMOs and these include unexpected gene interactions, cancer risks due to high amounts of pesticide residues, allergenicity, horizontal gene transfer, antibiotics resistance, biodiversity threat and environmental risks.

This often enough to sway public opinion against GM Foods. What is mostly hidden from the public knowledge is the fact that over 4485 risk assessments related to human health and the environment have been conducted on approved GM crops globally. A 2020 review by Smyth et. al determined that there is no substantiated evidence of GMO risks compared with similar risk potentials from non-GM counterparts. To explain the widespread negative perception, Smyth further opined that science-based recommendations that guide GMOs safe production and consumption are often ignored by unscientific opposition to the adoption and commercialization of GMOs.

We can thus conclude that fears surrounding GM food are not extensively backed by science. GM crops have also been approved by leading scientific authorities around the world, including U.S. National Academy of Sciences, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority, American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with the assurance that GM food crops do not pose any risks to people, animals or the environment. Moving forward, honest discussions around GM Foods and public awareness could do a lot more to improve public perception which is critical if GM Food is to play its rightful role in helping nations achieve food security.

This feature appeared in the June 2023 issue of Healthcare Middle East & Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE