Argentina May Have Figured Out How to Get GMOs Right
In the late 1990s, Raquel Chan found herself fascinated by sunflowers. They’re particularly hardy, tolerating heat that would kill other plants. They can grow in poor soils, getting by with scant nutrients in environments where other seeds could never even sprout.
Chan, a biochemist at the National University of Litoral in Argentina, thought it would be great if other plants—particularly food crops—could handle the same harsh conditions. So she started sifting through the sunflower’s genes, looking for the source of its strength.
When she found a promising candidate, Chan implanted the gene into a bacterium and then helped that bacterium infect the seed of a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family that scientists often use in agricultural experiments. The bacteria delivered the sunflower gene straight into A. thaliana’s genome, and changed it utterly. “We saw that the gene gave the transformed plants tolerance to drought, high salinity, and other non-biological stresses, along with increasing their productivity,” Chan says. But while toughening up A. thaliana was super-exciting for Chan and her team, it wasn’t particularly useful for the rest of the world. “We decided we had to try it in plants with more economic value.” Like what? Corn, wheat, alfalfa, and soybeans.
Chan’s work culminated earlier this month when Argentina approved a drought-tolerant soybean based on her research. The government approved a potato resistant to the destructive PVY virus at the same time, making Argentina the sixth country in the world, along with the US, China, Cuba, Indonesia, and Brazil, that produces homegrown genetically modified crops—perhaps better known as GMOs. About which, large swaths of the world would probably say: Yikes! But the path Chan’s research took from lab to field hints at a new way of understanding transgenic crops—not as corporatized invaders wreaking havoc on the environment, but as a tool to help farmers cope with the stresses of a warming world.
Many people believe GMOs are dangerous to human health, environmentally destructive, and a tool for multinational corporations like Monsanto to control the global food supply. Scientists who work on transgenic crops counter that genetic modification is just another way of creating plants that serve our needs—no more dangerous than the conventional breeding techniques responsible for turning the nubby grass teosinte into modern maize. If anything, it’s faster and more precise, they say. “Genetic manipulation isn’t necessarily the creation of Frankenstein,” Chan says.
To be clear: No one has ever found evidence that GMOs cause cancer or harm human health in any way. Researchers have found some evidence that they can exchange genes with non-GMO crops or other closely related plants, potentially spreading the modified genes to populations where scientists didn’t intend to put them. And it’s true that corn and soybeans engineered to be resistant to the powerful herbicide glyphosate allow farmers to cover their fields in the chemical—something no one would argue is good for the environment.
But Chan’s soybean doesn’t encourage farmers to spray more chemicals on their crops or alter the environment any more than farming already does. In fact, it helps them adapt to an environment that’s getting hotter and drier by the day. As the world warms and the tropics—home to many of the world’s poor—become basically unfarmable, drought tolerance is going to look increasingly like a pretty good trait to have.
“The world is demanding more and more food, and that’s why we need to continue increasing the productivity of our crops,” Carlos Casamiquela, Argentina’s minister of agriculture, said at the ceremony where the approvals were announced. Argentina’s transgenic soybean and potato are not only technological achievements, “but also economic and social ones that are going to produce more food for humankind.” In fact, Argentina was an early adopter of transgenic crops that had been approved in the US and has been planting transgenic soybeans since the early 1990s.
Luis Herrera-Estrella agrees. A biochemist and the director of Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, Herrera-Estrella has been developing transgenic crops for decades. By creating plants that could withstand drought, repel insects, and survive disease all by themselves, he thought he could help small farmers who might not have enough money to invest in pesticides and other specialized agricultural tools. The beneficial technology was right there in the seeds, no further investment required. “It was our dream that we were developing something marvelous for humanity,” he says.
In Mexico, though, things haven’t quite worked out that way. In 2009, multinational companies and Mexican researchers began planting experimental plots of GM maize. Mexico has allowed the commercial planting of GM cotton since 2010, and approved transgenic soybeans in 2012. But a lawsuit filed in 2013 brought those programs to a screeching halt. The suit contends that gene flow from transgenic maize threatens the biodiversity of Mexico’s national crop. In August of this year, a federal judge lifted the ban on granting permits for planting GM maize, but opponents immediately appealed the decision.
Herrera-Estrella’s latest work is plants that express a bacterial gene that converts phosphite, a relatively plentiful component of soil they normally can’t use, to phosphate, a chemical they desperately need to grow. That would mean farmers wouldn’t have to add as much phosphate fertilizer to their fields, cutting costs and protecting the environment from runoff. The phosphite-guzzling crops can also outcompete weeds (which love phosphate-rich fertilizer as much as any plant). “We have this technology in maize, cotton, and soybeans,” Herrera-Estrella says. But due to opposition in Mexico, “we can’t do the field trials.”
Herrera-Estrella wishes Mexico had started planting GM crops as early as Argentina did, before the rhetoric around them became so toxic. Today, he says, the costs of doing field trials of GM crops—which aren’t required for new crops produced through conventional breeding—are prohibitive for almost anyone who’s not Monsanto or Syngenta. “The big multinationals can do these studies, but the public institutions or national businesses in developing countries can’t,” Herrera-Estrella says. That leaves some of the most useful GM applications—and the ones that’d help poor farmers, like disease resistance and drought tolerance—in limbo. They aren’t profitable enough for multinationals; they’re too expensive for everyone else.
To cope with this cost, Chan has teamed up with the Argentine company Bioceres. “As a public laboratory, we had the capacity to get a patent, but not the resources to take the crops all way to the field,” she says. Bioceres funded the field trials and shepherded Chan’s soybean through the approval process. Their collaboration could be a model for producing new transgenic crops outside the domain of the multinationals.
Although Argentina has been more welcoming to GM crops than Mexico, Chan says she still sees plenty of opposition to her work. “We scientists share some of the blame because we don’t get out there enough,” she says. But if Chan’s soybean works out, it could do more than just help farmers feed people. Developed in a publically-funded lab and commercialized by a national company, it could be a model for getting ethical transgenic crops onto people’s plates.
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