Opinion: Genetically modified crops are tools of sustainability


It’s safe. It would help farmers deal with drought, support biodiversity, protect the environment and decrease a farms carbon footprint. It would help consumers cope with inflation and pay their food bills.

So why aren’t we growing genetically modified wheat?

We’re asking this question again because of the news from South America late last year that Brazil will accept the importation of genetically modified wheat flour from Argentina.

This is an enormous step, marking the first time anywhere in the world that a regulatory agency has approved such a move. Bloomberg called it “the most critical milestone for genetically modified wheat to date.”

Other countries may follow. Australia and New Zealand are reviewing genetically modified wheat. The UK has started field trials for gene-edited wheat. Other countries also are interested.

Huge hurdles remain. Farmers in Argentina are now growing thousands of acres of HB4 wheat, genetically modified for drought tolerance, but Brazilian millers are skeptical. They worry that consumers don’t want food derived from genetically modified wheat.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps it makes sense to review the facts—and to think about a better future.

I grow wheat and other crops here in Saskatchewan, Canada. I don’t grow GM wheat because it’s not available, at least right now. I do grow GM canola, however, and I’ve seen the benefits that biotechnology can deliver when we allow safe science to inform crop breeding.

In the case of HB4 wheat, scientists have developed a seed technology that is drought tolerant. Field trials have shown that when this technology is partnered with regenerative soil practices like no-till, the carbon footprint for this crop decreases while yields are protected when water is limited.

Droughts are a growing threat in my region as Canada, along with much of the world, is experiencing unpredictable extreme weather events. In western Canada in 2021, we suffered our worst drought in decades. We’ve had dry summers and we’ve had hot summers, and often we can deal with these problems when they come at us one at a time. Last year, however, they struck together—and the result was our smallest harvest in recent memory.

Genetically modified wheat would help farmers like me contend with problems such as this. Rather than watching our crops wilt and die, we’d see them continue to thrive and survive. It would be good for the environment, too, as we seek to grow as much food on as little land as possible. This is a major goal of sustainable farming, and biotechnology is an innovation that allows us to meet it.

Best of all, genetically modified wheat would support the growing consumers demand for affordable wheat products like pasta and bread. When farmers like me can consistently grow enough wheat by adapting to the challenges of a changing climate, we are able to meet these demands and effectively keep wheat products available and affordable.

That’s a big concern right now. People have noticed that the prices in grocery stores and markets are spiking. The major factors include supply-chain slowdowns and general inflation. Droughts also play a role—and they’ve contributed to the fact that in expectation of scarcity, wheat futures are hitting their highest prices in years.

Genetically modified wheat is part of the solution. In a world with abundant wheat, everything from bread and pasta to breakfast cereal and pizza crust would cost less.

We’ve used biotechnology for a generation in canola, corn and soybeans. Although these crops once confronted uncertainty, that debate is over: GM technology is a conventional part of agriculture. Every single day, billions of people eat food that traces back to genetically modified crops.

We would have adopted genetically modified wheat years ago, except that our industry was concerned that consumers wouldn’t accept it. Whereas much of the corn and soybeans grown goes into livestock feed or a food ingredient, wheat goes directly into the human food chain.

At the start of this century, when GM was a relatively new technology, many people didn’t know what to make of it. It’s easy to reject something you do not understand. Sadly, we may have only ourselves to blame: We failed to communicate the big advantages of this crop to consumers.

But this doesn’t mean that we never should try again. The views of consumers are essential, but they also can change. As people learn more about these safe technologies and come to understand that these same technologies help farmers meet the sustainability goals many consumers are asking for and we share, their support for these ‘tools of sustainability’ may change. This is the story of genetically modified crop acceptance, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t come to include the acceptance of genetically modified wheat.

As a wheat producer, I will be watching developments in Argentina and Brazil closely—and hope they lead to a better future for farmers, consumers, and everyone.

By Jake Leguee, Agri-Pulse

Jake Leguee and his family grow canola, wheat, durum, peas, flax, and lentils using a no-till system in Saskatchewan, Canada. Jake has been an active agvocate and is a member of the Global Farmer Network www.globalfarmernetwork.org.

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