Transgenic HB4 wheat approved in Argentina has negative side effects

Brazil, the main buyer, hasn’t been favorable to approving HB4; technology depends on its green light

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | Buenos Aires |
HB4 was produced in partnership with Conicet, Argentina's main public scientific research institution - Marcelo Manera / AFP

The approval of the new Argentine transgenic wheat HB4 for commercialization has been subject of debate, rejection and expectations since the publication of an official bulletin from the country's Ministry of Agriculture. The document describes the reasons for the controversy: the IND-ØØ412-7 seed, the scientific name of the plant developed by biochemist Raquel Chan, which is tolerant of the potent ammonium glufosinate herbicide.

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HB4 is still pending approval by Brazil, the main buyer of Argentine wheat. Despite garnering news attention by being a national technological advance and the novelty of possibly being, the first transgenic wheat commercialized in the world, HB4 was not widely accepted in the country.

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In addition to the negative reaction in civil society, in a survey conducted by the Brazilian Wheat Industry Association (Abitrigo) with Brazilian millers, 85% were against the use of genetically modified (GM) wheat and "90% said they were willing to stop their purchases of Argentine wheat ".

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Other technologies like HB4 have been discontinued for the same reason. This was the case for transgenic wheat developed by Monsanto in 2004, resistant to glyphosate.

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The scientific community and environmentalists were already aware of the possibility of its approval, since two of the five Argentine entities in charge of authorizing its sale had previously given the green light, once in 2016, through the National Agro-Food Service (Senasa) and again in 2018, via the Commission National Biotechnology (Conabia).

After the mention in an official bulletin, thousands of renowned Argentine scientists from the National Council for Scientific Research (Conicet), through which HB4 was developed with financing from the Bioceres company, signed a letter requesting the termination of the transgenic wheat trade.

Experts reiterate that ammonium glufosinate is 15 times more toxic than glyphosate, with widely known studied effects, and proven to be harmful to humans and the environment.

The Argentine agricultural sector also showed an aversion to the technology. Entrepreneurs fear the commercial consequences, given the widespread rejection from consumers, in a country where the food base is basically wheat. Through rains and pollination, GM wheat could reach conventional wheat plantations, through so-called "genetic contamination", making the segmentation of transgenic and non-transgenic unfeasible.

For this same reason, agroecological and family farmers would also see their crops affected.

Genetic food modification and the technological package

Even with the quick initial rejection from Brazil, Raquel Chan hopes that her transgenic wheat will be sold in the neighboring country. "It would generate wealth for the country and more food. This approval would take Argentina forward alongside Brazil - and I hope, alongside other Latin American countries - to position itself as a producer of technology, not just suppliers of grains and raw materials."

Echoing the prospect of economic growth from transgenics, the Argentine Council for Biotechnology Information and Development (ArgenBio) highlights revenues of US $ 127 billion since the insertion of agricultural biotechnology in the country, after the approval of the first transgenic soybeans in 1996, as well as the creation of more than two million jobs as results of the cultivation of transgenics.

The concern that genetic mutation raises among scientists and environmentalists opposed to the large scale agribusiness model, is what they call a technological package, which associates transgeneses, with pesticides and in vitro fertilizers.

"One thing cannot work without the other", points out environmental lawyer Marcos Filardi, creator of the Hunger Museum. "It doesn't make much sense to talk about transgenesis itself, because they are designed specifically to tolerate the application of pesticides."

When asked if she was concerned that HB4 would boost the use of ammonium glufosinate, Chan highlighted the focus of her project: developing a drought-resistant plant. "Ammonium glufosinate doesn’t have to be used. This piece of DNA remained as a trace. The transformation technique requires a selection marker, because the plant does not easily receive the exogenous gene."

Environmental and human rights

Argentina is the third biggest producer of transgenics, behind only the United States and Brazil. According to the Argentine Council for the Information and Development of Biotechnology (ArgenBio), Argentina has reached its limit for the technology, since practically 100% of the cultivation of soy and cotton, and more than 97% of corn is transgenic.

Filardi points out that these practices are carried out without consulting the population. He points out that the lack of a labeling law to indicate GM foods, increases concerns regarding HB4, since Argentina is one of the main wheat consumers in the world.

"The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee itself states that, for food to be compatible with what international human rights law requires, it must be quantitatively adequate, in a sufficient volume of food, and qualitatively free from harmful substances. . "

The more than a thousand scientists who signed the letter in repudiation of transgenic wheat - an event highlighted by Filardi as "remarkable and unprecedented" - echo the studies of molecular biologist Andrés Carrasco, who died in 2014, as well as the former president of Conicet.

He was the first Argentine scientist to conduct studies on how glyphosate fumigation affects neighboring communities and the environment. Malformation of fetuses, cancer, deterioration of fresh water and loss of other varieties of wheat were some of the main discoveries that led to the complaints from scientific field the complaints and peasant families directly affected by the process.

In this sense, Chan says she is working with the Ministry of Sciences on a proposal that prohibits the application of pesticides by airplanes, in order to prevent them from spreading with the wind. "It could be done with drones, for example."

Edited by: Leandro Melito