Transgenic Wheat: problem or solution?

Last October, Argentina, a country with a great agricultural tradition, was the first country in the world to approve the use of transgenic wheat seeds, called Wheat HB4. In this article, we are going to analyze the impacts of this new transgenic event on the economy, agriculture, health, society, and environment.  

By Santiago Campeni / AJIN

To start, we must define what transgenic is. A transgenic is any individual to whose original genetic material a gene of a diffent organism is added: this new gene is readily expressed in characteristics of the transgenic individual. For example, there is a bacteria which naturally produces a toxin that affects insects dangerous for corn plants: its toxin-generating gene is inserted in the corn plant, making a new crop that produces the toxin of the bacteria independently.

The history of trangenic organisms in Argentina started in 1996, when the soy resistant to glyphosate developed by Nidera was introduced in the country’s agriculture. In only 81 days, the Ministry of Agriculture put into motion a chain of transgenic events that lasts until our days – with 61 events registered. It is important to mention that the Minister of Agriculture at that time was Felipe Sola: he is the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and, as such, has impulsed an agreement with China to produce swine meat for the Asian country. This deal is possible because China had to kill half of the population of its pigs for an epidemic of African Swine Fever, an illness that could be a pandemic in humans according to the WHO.

To be approved, the first transgenic wheat in the world had to pass the controls of three supervisor organisms, a process which is necessary for each new transgenic crop. The supervisor organisms are the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria (SENASA), the Comisión Nacional Asesora de Biotecnología Agropecuaria (CONABIA), and the National Direction of the Agriculture Ministry. The CONABIA commission has been historically formed by members who have interests in the agribusiness enterprises (Monsanto, Syngenta, DOW). At the moment of the approbation of the transgenic wheat from 36 members of the CONABIA, 26 has this profile.

Wheat HB4, promoted as drought resistant, has two new genes. One, the HB4 gene, comes from the sunflower, making the crop resistant to the drought, and the other is a gene resistant to Glufosinate Ammonium, a broad-spectrum herbicide that kills all weeds – except the plants resistant to it.

From an agronomic point of view, different studies by doctor Raquel Chan (a superior investigator on Conicet, a teacher of the National Litoral University, and the person who discovered the gene that gives resistance to droughts,) demonstrate that the yield of Wheat HB4 is 60% higher than that of other wheat varieties under the same conditions. This would be an advantage over the currently used wheat varieties, even more in the context of historical drought which the country is experiencing and which is considerably affecting crop yields. Besides, according to projections for the region, due to the effect of climate change, these extreme events of drought and floods will increased because of climate change: the damage to yields will therefore also increase, which will affect Argentinia incomes.

As mentioned before, the second gene introduced in the wheat was the Glufosinate Ammonium resistance gene. This agrochemical, used since 2011 in Argentina, is 15% more toxic than the well-known Glyphosate. The agrochemicals must be used with extreme care, with different safety measures. Nevertheless, this does not happen. Just to mention some of the large numbers of cases that can be heard around the country, fumigator airplanes pulverize the fields, so that the wind spreads the agrochemicals much more farther than the zone where it should be applied. Some cases are known where the fumigator airplanes pass a few meters or even over rural schools where the children go to classes. The teachers themself had a fight against the airplanes that fumigates the people.  

Another extreme case was what happened in Ituzaingo, a neighborhood in the suburbs of Cordoba’s capital: here, Sofia Gatica, mother and inhabitant of the neighborhood started a study going house by house. She found out a lot of cases of cancer, endocrine problems, and metabolic disease and she noticed that the number of cases in the neighborhood increased by 50%. The cause behind the increment was the vicinity of farms that had fumigated without respecting the minimum distance to the people. In 2005, after hundreds of complaints from the movement “Ituzaingo Mothers” who fought for the lives of their children and relatives who were presenting these pathologies or had died, the Cordoba´s municipality detected traces of a pesticide in the blood of 24 kids: the pesticide was banned in 1976 in the US and in 1980 in Argentina for being “probably carcinogenic”. In 2012, with an event which made history, a producer and a fumigator were brought to trial and sentenced to three years of ineffective prison. We emphasize that this was a historical event because in most cases the complaints remain in the courts and people continue to suffer these injustices. However, in the United States, there have been millionaire lawsuits in which Monsanto had to pay producers who suffered from cancer for using its products. Similar cases exist by the hundred in Argentina, as that the original Wichis communities which are now forced to live among soybean field and are exposed to fumigation because of the deforestation in the province of Salta.

However, even if the agrochemicals were applied respecting the correct safety measures, the pesticide can reach our tables.  A study released for the Bios Civil Association in the coastal city of Mar del Plata said that 90% of the people analyzed present Glyphosate in their urine. Mar del Plata city is not in the countryside. Therefore, the only way through which the agrochemicals can be introduced in the body is by food. If the transgenic wheat is introduced among the crops used in the country, the base of the Argentinians’ alimentation will be fumigated. To confront with the health data in the Buenos Aires Central Market, an analysis conducted by the State between 2011 and 2013 showed that 60% of the fruits and vegetables analyzed bore traces of agrochemicals

From an environmental view, since the beginning of the transgenic model, the use of agrochemicals has risen exponentially. According to the report on economics and industrial development developed by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), in 1998 the consumption of agrochemicals was less than 150 million liters: in 2011 this number was 350 million liters. Twenty years ago, only 3 liters of Glyphosate were used per hectare: now they are 15 liters. This makes Argentina the first country in the world in relation to the use of Glyphosate.

The reason of the increasing figures is double-folded. In the first place, the constant advance of the soy frontier which is testified by the deforestation rates and the record fires of 2020 of which 95% were initiated intentionally according to official data. The other factor is the resistance to pesticides by new weeds which previously died with fewer applications. In fact, after 20 years of constant herbicide applications, some plants have developed resistance and this makes it necessary to use more and more quantities of agrochemicals to fight them.

Another ecological effect of the massive use of agrochemicals is that they are found in places not related to agriculture. A report of the Environmental Investigation Center, which depends on the CONICET (the most important national scientific organism), shows that the rain water pouring over La Plata city contains traces of Glyphosate: the pesticide evaporates in the atmosphere through the plants and travels thourgh the clouds. The same report found samples of this pesticide in the Parana-Uruguay River, one of the most important water basins in Argentina as it satisfies the needs of the local population and agriculture. This report shows us that the Glyphosate remains in the environment and contaminates different water bodies.  

Besides affecting humans, the use of diverse agrochemicals also affects the pollinating organisms. A report realized by the University of Texas shows that the bees which did not eat a sugar solution with Glyphosate had beneficial bacterias in their stomach. Those which did intake the sugar solution with Glysphosate did not have the bacteria. As a result, they had a lower immune response and higher chances to extinguish. Similar effects have been registered in birds.

If we focus on the social impact of transgenic monocultures, we must talk about a land concentration model. The arrival of technological packages, which include a transgenic seed resistant to a pesticide and the pesticide itself, means the exclusion from the agricultural system of the small and middle farmers who cannot afford the international prices of the agrochemicals. Farmes get into debt to by the ever-increasing prices of agrochemicals, while their income depends on the changing prices of the production affected by variables such as the weather and the value of commodities. The poorer producers are forced to abandon their fields and move to the outskirts of cities, where they live in precarious settlements – called villas miseria in Argentina – generating a population concentration in these areas. The uninhabited fields, in turn, are bought by the big landowners who add new lands to their own and increase their concentrated power.

If we talk about concentration, we need to talk about the agrochemicals companies. They used to be 6, but they have now merged leaving 90% of the market in the hands of only 4 companies – Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta-ChemChina are just two. All the crops and the pesticides have patents, which means that these products are private. The crops and the seeds that mother nature gave for free have a price and are managed by a few companies. These companies, which form an oligopoly, are the ones that finance national investigations and some universities, making it more difficult the realization of impartial studies. 

Returning to the impact of extensive agriculture with the use of the “technological package”, this model proposes an agriculture without farmers. It means that a field previously cared for by many people can be now cared for with a plane or by fewer people. This system leaves out thousands of people, in a country where UNICEF estimates say that 62.9% of children will be in poverty by the end of 2020. In the post-COVID-19 recovery, the need for jobs will increase because of the people who lost their formal or informal jobs. Faced with this increase in unemployment, Argentina’s agribusiness model does not offer many jobs and those it does offer will be fewer than in another scenario.

Last but not least, the economic impact generated by the introduction of Wheat HB4 could be perceived as positive initially: it would increase the cultivated area, as this variety of crop better resists droughts, and it would even increas the lands’ performance. However, wheat, like soybeans or corn, are commodities and Argentina’s main buyer in the international market is Brazil, to which goes the 45% of yielding. Brazil has not allowed the import of transgenic wheat yet, as the maneuvre causes resentements. Specifically, Brazilian mills currently oppose the entry of Wheat HB4 into the country, as they fear that it will contaminate other non-transgenic kinds of wheat.

After analyzing the different points, we can ask: Is it convenient to approve Wheat HB4 in Argentina? If only the drought resistance gene had been introduced, would we be facing this debate? Will this new variety of wheat mean a greater income of foreign currency to the country? And jobs?  Is the health of Argentinians less important than the inflow of dollars that will end up in the hands of a few?

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