KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Challenges in agricultural production over the past decade and a renewed regulatory push could be setting the stage for the eventual introduction into the United States of biotechnologically engineered wheat ground for flour for domestic food use.
Recent developments toward the introduction of genetically modified wheat come about 10 years after the previous push for commercialization, and much has changed since then. Fewer farmers who have their choice of crops based on their climate and geography are choosing to grow wheat. Several crop years have had yields slashed by severe drought. Misinformation and disinformation, including unscientific attacks on bioengineered crops, became more prevalent as the social media era reached maturity. And for more than a year, grain markets have been destabilized by war between two major global exporters.
In the 2010s, the conversation around bioengineered wheat was mostly muted, and often the loudest voices were a vocal minority opposed to the concept on principle. But development of wheat varieties designed to thrive in low-moisture circumstances continued behind the scenes. Those considering both sides of the genetically modified (GM) wheat question were intrigued by ideas that bioengineered wheat could improve yields and increase production when Mother Nature issues scanty rain in the Plains and elsewhere in the United States and could help feed hungry populations in developing nations where precipitation deficits have long been the norm.
Grain and oilseed supply chain organizations have responded to the White House’s call for opinions about coordinating a framework for approval of biotechnology. Wheat-focused trade associations are reviewing and updating policies on GM wheat to better reflect the current scientific data. The US Department of Agriculture is expected to make a determination on an application submitted by a South American company, Bioceres Crop Solutions, to allow cultivation of GM wheat in the United States.
Long before GM wheat’s push toward legitimacy and viability came GM corn and soybeans, among other crops such as cotton and sugar beets. For nearly 30 years, most of the world’s corn and soybean crops have been genetically modified. Those crops primarily are fed to livestock whereas US wheat primarily is used for human consumption in bread, pasta and other processed products. Genetically engineered seeds for major field crops were introduced commercially in 1996. By 2022, more than 90% of US corn, upland cotton and soybeans were produced using genetically engineered varieties, the USDA said.
Of the many GE traits that have been developed — including virus and fungus resistance, drought resistance and enhanced protein, oil or vitamin content — by far the most commonly used traits in US production of GE crops are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Crop products sold as herbicide-tolerant are designed to pay no heed to potent herbicides such as glyphosate, glufosinate and dicamba, giving farmers several choices for effective weed control.
USDA survey data indicate 17% of domestic soybean acres were planted with herbicide-tolerant seeds in 1997, rising to 68% by 2001, plateauing at 94% in 2014 and edging up to 95% in 2022. By comparison, herbicide-tolerant corn seed adoption was initially far slower before expanding considerably in 2000 and eventually accounting for 90% of domestic corn acres in 2022.
Genes from the soil bacterium Bt produce insecticidal proteins used in insect-resistant crops. Since the trait debuted in 1996, Bt corn acreage jumped to 8% in 1997, 19% by 2000 and hit 84% by 2022, according to USDA survey data.
The herbicide tolerance trait has been tested with Roundup-ready wheat. Insect resistance could also boost yields and production, trimming away at least one of the farmer’s woes. That much was evident to any witnesses to the hordes of grasshoppers munching on tillers during the 2022 Hard Spring Wheat Tour of North Dakota. And yet GM wheat has met with resistance from some importing countries and therefore grain companies and exporters. A wide range of not-for-profit nongovernmental organizations, many based in Europe, including Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth International, have mounted campaigns against GM wheat. Bioengineered wheat seeds were field tested in the United States beginning in 1994. By 2004, Monsanto, citing consumer fears stoked by activist groups, that flour ground from bioengineered wheat might not be safe, prevented the marketing of such products in the United States or abroad.
“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. “While everyone else was having a good time inside, wheat just sort of stands there. I guess we have the advantage somewhat because on the other hand we can tell everybody there is no GM wheat in the flour. As a miller who is hoping for a lot of real tangible improvement, I’m pleased with improvements we’ve seen already, such as the wheat and barley scab initiative.”
Desired wheat traits
While insect and herbicide resistance could be desirable traits for GM wheat, the current focus is on drought tolerance in the wake of several crop years where a lack of precipitation ate into yields and pushed average protein content levels higher than most millers prefer for their grinds.
Droughts can last for multiple years or even decades, meteorologists say. Most last a few months or a few years as El Niño and La Niña climate patterns shift irregularly every two to seven years. El Niño features warmer-than-usual surface water in the tropical Pacific Ocean near Mexico and South America, which can fuel more rain in the southern United States. La Niña, when the Pacific’s waters are cooler than normal, tends to push rain and cooler temperatures to the northern United States, creating hotter, drier weather in the South.
In the years since the previous push for GM wheat, droughts have adversely affected parts of US wheat production areas in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2021 and 2022, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year, Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom released the results of a study indicating global wheat production could be doubled by the genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars without increasing global wheat acreage.
Bioceres Crop Solutions, the Argentina-based maker of crop productivity technologies founded in 2001, has devised a drought-tolerant variety of GM wheat. The company said its HB4 drought-tolerance technology has proven to increase wheat yields in limited-water conditions by 20% on average. That feature is a boon to double-cropping systems, where water management is increasingly critical. Under no-till practices, HB4 soybean-wheat rotations result in an estimated 1,650 kilograms of carbon fixed into the soil per hectare per year, compared to positive emissions from conventional soybean monoculture, Bioceres said.
HB4 has been approved for import by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand and Nigeria for use in food and feed. But only two countries, Argentina and Brazil, are authorized for production of GM wheat. The company is seeking approval in Australia to release HB4 for planting in 2023.
There even has been progress that could eventually see HB4 seeded in the United States. Bioceres and HB4 underwent a voluntary consultation period with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In June 2022, the FDA concluded its evaluation of HB4 and had no further questions regarding the genetically modified wheat’s safety. The FDA’s tacit approval allowed 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. “A lot needs to happen before that product gets into the ground. Drought tolerance is a trait that is of interest, but there are a lot of steps the company needs to take before it is commercialized in the US.”
The timeline for USDA’s determination of Bioceres’ application to allow cultivation of HB4 is unclear, DeMarchi said.
“The USDA has put new regulations in place in the past few years, and this is the first wheat product to go through that process,” she said. “We do expect it to happen this year. That the FDA has said there are no food safety concerns with the project is a good step that Bioceres already has gone through.”
When the FDA concluded its evaluation in 2022, NAMA said it was closely monitoring the regulatory progress of Bioceres domestically and in other markets. The trade group said “the availability of high-quality, affordable wheat is essential for millers, and ultimately, consumers. There is growing demand for sustainably produced wheat that uses less water, fertilizer, fuel and other inputs, and at the same time drought has reduced wheat yields in the US and around the world. Drought-tolerant wheats like HB4 could help with global supply challenges.”
At the same time, NAMA has steadfastly backed the consumer’s ability to purchase food based on their personal GMO preferences and has supported legislation requiring labeling of products that contain bioengineered food ingredients.
“We make a point of saying customers should be able to buy the foods that they want,” DeMarchi said. “Any product that comes to market, we still need to be able to be sure that if you don’t want GMO wheat you don’t get GMO wheat. This specific trait of drought tolerance is of interest, but the benefits have to be weighed against the potential downsides of how to position it in the marketplace, and those are conversations that still need to take place.”
Those conversations will happen this year, at least internally at NAMA.
“NAMA hasn’t revisited its biotech wheat policy or decision in many years,” DeMarchi explained. “So, we are undertaking a process this year to revisit our polices to make sure they’re still current. We’ll look at what is written, which is about 10 years old. Our technical committee will set up a working group to review it and likely our executive committee as well.”
Other wheat associations indicated their published public statements on biotech wheat are current. US Wheat Associates, together with the National Association of Wheat Growers, supports wheat producers maintaining planting and marketing choices based on economic, agronomic and market factors, as well as wheat customers having choices in purchases based on wheat traits. The groups back voluntary labeling of biotech food ingredients, seek to standardize domestic and global definitions of biotechnologically-derived genetically modified organisms and push for predictable, science-based, consistent international guidelines on low-level presence policies for trade of wheat for food, feed and processing.
US Wheat and NAWG’s policy — adopted in 2006 and again with additions in 2012, 2015 and 2018 — concludes: “We are confident that biotechnology will deliver significant consumer and producer benefits, and we support continued biotechnology research and product and market development. We invite valued and interested customers to join with us in a working partnership to explore the emerging biotechnology industry.”
In early February, NAMA and a coalition of seven other grain, oilseed and food trade organizations submitted comments in response to a White House Request for Information for the Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology approval. The comments highlight current challenges, including uncertainty over agency jurisdictions, lack of predictability on the time frame for approval, and lack of transparency.
The groups suggested a wide range of modifications to the framework last modified in 2017, including: Mandatory notification and transparency for all biotech developers; establishment of the FDA as the arbiter of allergen oversight review of the biotech products’ safety, nutritional and functionality claims; integration of the Agricultural Marketing Service, Foreign Agricultural Service and the Office of the US Trade Representatives in the framework; a full reorganization of the FDA; and a periodic review of the framework every five years at minimum.
Destabilized by war
Increased grain market stability that expanded authorization and production of GM wheat could have heightened importance in the wake of market disruption over the past year due to a military conflict between the top global wheat exporter by volume, Russia, and neighboring Ukraine, the world’s fifth largest wheat exporter by volume.
When the FDA concluded its appraisal of HB4 in 2022, US Wheat and NAWG in a joint statement said, “With global demand for wheat increasing every year, the need to produce more wheat in sustainable ways is clear. Drought had already reduced world wheat supplies and pushed prices higher before the invasion of Ukraine cut off supplies from the world’s fifth largest wheat exporting nation. A trait such as drought tolerance in wheat could help wheat growers in increasingly arid regions be more productive and ease food security concerns.”
Genetically modified crops always have had their detractors. But GM soybeans and corn, being largely used for feed and being crushed for extraction when used for human consumption, were able to get a foothold in the United States, whereas wheat is mostly for food use and is ground directly for flour. The preponderance of scientific evidence points to GM crops being safe for human consumption, but resistance remains fierce in certain markets, especially Western Europe and Asia. Groups in those regions maintain consuming GM grains may be harmful for humans and stand ready to push back against the commercialization of HB4.
Knowing that, wheat producers impressed by technology that boosts crop production in drought conditions may continue to resist it for fear the crop will be unmarketable.
International markets and domestic flour customers are the roadblock for now, Siemer said.
“It’s close to 30 years after genetic modification was first used in products going on the market, and there’s been only the smallest amount of progress in wheat,” he said. “Most people just threw it up and said, ‘Look, the Japanese will never buy another bushel from us if we start selling GM wheat.’ Every customer we’ve got has a letter from us on file saying that we can assure them that there is not genetically modified material in our flour except for adventitious presence such as a few traces of soybean residue.”
Milling conventional wheat at certain mills and GM wheat at separate locations would be “a very painful situation,” he said.
But the advantages of bioengineered wheat are clear, especially when it comes to agricultural economics, Siemer said.
“Agronomics is one thing, but economics is another,” he said. “As a miller and somebody who has observed a lot of wheat crops and dealing with the fact that wheat is economically challenged, I think we need 150-bushel-per-acre wheat. We need wheat that is resistant to scab, in particular, as well as rusts and other diseases. It would be great to have the potential of a low-gluten wheat, a wheat that would dramatically reduce the impact of Celiac disease, the gluten intolerance that affects about 1% of the population. I am really excited about gene editing, CRISPR, and would love to see us promote it whole-heartedly as a breeding technique.”
How best to influence the end user and thus the flour buyer remains an open question.
“Mill customers won’t say ‘go ahead with that GM stuff, the consumer has lost interest,’ that’s not going to happen,” Siemer said. “Maybe it’s putting a challenge to Milling & Baking News (and World Grain) readers: Are we still at a point where we can influence the public perception on genetic editing as a process? What is the best way to go forward with genetic editing? I can’t believe that a lot of very smart people with a lot of money invested are not saying ‘we’ve got to get this into the market, and we can’t have that kind of resistance that we’ve had with genetic modification, so here’s the strategy we’re going to use.’”