KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US – Timing is everything when launching a product, and now appears to be as good a time as any for the makers of genetically modified wheat to push for commercialization.

Grain markets have been destabilized by a military conflict between two of the world’s biggest wheat producers and exporters, an ongoing global pandemic, and increased climate volatility. With less reliable output in key wheat-producing countries and demand for wheat-based products steadily growing worldwide, it makes sense to question whether conventional wheat varieties alone will offer the yield potential needed to meet future consumption targets.

At the forefront of the recent push to commercialize GM wheat is Bioceres Crop Solutions, a company based in Argentina and the maker of HB4, a proprietary drought-tolerant wheat variety that has already been approved by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand and Nigeria for use in food and feed. However, the only country in which HB4 wheat is authorized for production and consumption is Argentina, where five varieties have been cleared for registration in the current crop season. Bioceres is lobbying Australia to approve planting of HB4 in 2023, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently concluded its evaluation of HB4 and said it has no further questions regarding the genetically modified wheat’s safety, which will serve as a green light for Bioceres to seek planting approval in the US.

For nearly 30 years, most of the world’s corn and soybean crops, which primarily are fed to livestock, have been genetically modified. But GM wheat has been slower to gain acceptance since it is primarily consumed directly by humans in bread, pasta and other processed products.

Although the preponderance of scientific evidence points to GM crops being safe for human consumption, there is still strong resistance among a sizeable contingent of global consumers, particularly in Western Europe and Asia. These groups insist that consuming GM grains may be harmful to humans and are prepared to vigorously protest the commercialization of HB4. 

Wheat producers are understandably intrigued by technology that boosts crop production in drought conditions. The case for GM wheat received a boost in July when a team of scientists at the United Kingdom’s Rothamsted Research concluded that global wheat production could be doubled by the genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars without increasing global wheat acreage.

But even if that groundbreaking research proves accurate, GM wheat still faces an uphill climb. Farmers will still ask: Can I sell it if I grow it? Offering an even more tepid response is the global flour milling community. Following the FDA’s announcement regarding HB4, the North American Flour Millers Association said that while GM varieties like HB4 have the potential to boost global wheat supplies, the association “supports consumers being able to make food purchases based on their personal preferences and supported legislation requiring labeling of products that contain bioengineered food ingredients.”

The European Flour Millers’ position on the matter is even less nuanced. On its website, EFM says: “The European flour milling community will continue to supply flour from conventional wheat. If genetically modified wheats were to become available, millers would have to be convinced of their public acceptability and practical potential for the consumers before using them.”

Although the landscape has improved for GM wheat, gaining widespread consumer acceptance still appears to be, at least for now, a hurdle that’s probably too high to clear.