July 13, 2022

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We must learn to love genetically modified crops

A NEW STRAIN of drought-resistant wheat is helping to set the record straight on GMOs — a plant breeding technology that has long been considered at odds with sustainable agriculture but may be essential to its future.

The Food and Drug Administration recently determined that HB4, developed by the Argentinian company, Bioceres, is safe for humans to eat, bringing this new variety closer to commercial development in the United States. HB4 has already been approved for production in Argentina and Australia, but still requires sign-off from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) — which is likely, pending reviews of the crop’s environmental impact.

This would be an agricultural milestone for two key reasons: First, whereas most GMO crops now grown in the US are used for livestock feed or derivatives such as corn syrup, HB4 would be directly consumed by humans. Second, it would be the first major food crop designed for drought tolerance. It’s hard to understate the importance of a crop that can better endure the kind of record-breaking drought and heat that is ravaging farms from the American West to Italy and Somalia. Just ask India, which recently banned most wheat exports to preserve adequate supplies for its own people, worsening a worldwide shortage already made critical by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Yet many consumers and investors — especially those who aren’t among the 53 million food-insecure Americans currently relying on food banks to survive — remain skeptical of the value and safety of GMO wheat. I get it — I’ve been among those who recoil at the prospect of eating genetically modified bread — or GMO anything, really. But when I examined the scientific basis for my concerns, I found that there is none.

For decades, human consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has inspired misbegotten fear in consumers because few of us understand the technique, which uses bits of DNA from other plants, animals, or even bacteria to create desired traits in crops.

Critics have raised spurious concerns ranging from cancer and allergies to loss of nutritional value in GMO foods. Others worry about the modified genetics escaping into the wild, wreaking havoc on ecosystems. Many distrust the Big Ag companies creating new GMO crops to prioritize human safety over profit. As a result, GMO foods have been largely banned in Europe and much of Africa.

But nothing has ever been found proving that GMOs harm human health. In fact, every major scientific organization, including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, has attested to the safety of this plant breeding technology. And while GMO crops can cause “genetic drift in nearby fields, measures can be taken to avoid this. Consumers need to understand that GMOs aren’t inherently dangerous to human health or the environment any more than a television inherently damages your intelligence. GMO breeding is simply a technological platform: The danger or benefit lies in how it is applied.

Humans have been altering plant DNA for millennia — selecting and breeding ever bigger, softer grains, less-bitter vegetables and fatter, sweeter fruits. Before GMO, those traits were acquired by cross-breeding the same or similar species of plants. GMOs dramatically widen the possibilities by pulling from different organisms and producing swift results. Rather than taking a decade or more with conventional breeding methods, gene-editing tools can yield new plant varieties in two to three years. Gene-editing tools like Crispr, which can “delete” unwanted traits in a genome, can produce results even faster and more affordably.

One of the most powerfully beneficial traits integrated into commercial crops today is derived from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), which enables the plant to produce its own internal insecticides that are benign to humans. The development of Bt-integrated corn, now cultivated worldwide, and Bt-integrated eggplants grown in Bangladesh, have significantly reduced applications of chemical pesticides, saving farmers money and improving soil health.

To develop its drought-resistant wheat, Bioceres scientists added genetic material from a sunflower that determines how the plant uses the moisture it channels and stores. Discovered by Argentinian scientist Raquel Chan, HB4 is among the sunflower genes that govern water efficiency. After Chan and her team’s lab experiments showed crops including soybeans could thrive in hot, dry conditions with infrequent waterings, Bioceres licensed the gene.

The company reports that in field trials its GMO wheat varietal has boosted yields by an average of 20% in water-limited conditions. These numbers need to be corroborated by an independent analysis and far more research needs to be done to identify other genes that can help confer drought-tolerance to food crops. But this progress offers some hope to millions of farmers worldwide facing harsh conditions that will only get hotter and dryer.

History has shown us the consequences of genetic engineering in agriculture when its application is flawed. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds — the crop that has become nearly synonymous with GMOs — contained genetics that made them immune to chemicals that kill virtually every other kind of plant. These herbicide-tolerant plants now account for 90% of all the corn, cotton, and soybeans in the US, and many of the products have backfired, leading to the emergence of “superweeds” resistant to the chemicals, which require the use of more and stronger weed-killing sprays.

And that’s the notable concern I have about the Bioceres product: In addition to the HB4 drought-tolerant gene, it has added a gene for herbicide tolerance. I understand the purpose, given how widely accepted the trait has become in agricultural markets. But the harmful impacts of herbicides undermine the core value of the HB4 innovation and its game-changing climate benefits. That isn’t enough reason to reject the new crop, though, and shouldn’t stop the USDA from approving HB4 wheat for commercial production.

We must move beyond the question of whether GMO crops should be developed at all, and instead focus on which applications will bring the most value to our world. Scientists are working to develop genetically modified crops with wider, deeper roots that can significantly improve carbon storage in soil. Research is also underway to develop GMO and gene-editing crop varieties of staple grains and specialty foods — from coffee and cacao to citrus and wine grapes — that are tolerant not only of heat and drought, but of the many other climate pressures bearing down on farmers worldwide: flooding, invasive insects, bacterial blights, and shifting seasons.

Some of these efforts will fail, but those that succeed will bring life-sustaining benefits to the most food-insecure populations in the most vulnerable climates. The bottom line: Rising environmental pressures have begun to justify the use of controversial agricultural tools that can help change the balance back in favor of humanity — as long as the technology is applied responsibly.