Warnings and rejections of an unprecedented global experiment
The Brazilian biosafety agency has approved the purchase of the GMO wheat grown in Argentina by the company Bioceres, the final step required to authorise commercialisation. The company had already reported that it had planted 55 thousand hectares of this variety, known as HB4, in the country. The decision “unleashes effects that are yet to be seen”, according to the progressive media outlet Lavaca.
According to Lavaca, socio-environmental movements and more than 1,400 scientists have criticised this variety on the grounds that it is tolerant to a herbicide 15 times more toxic than glyphosate. The Agricultural Liaison Committee (negotiating body of the agriculture sector) alerted the Government that it is “inevitable” that this wheat will “generate a process of contamination of non-genetically modified wheat”. There is also rejection of the unprecedented move within the Brazilian supply chain itself.
“It is a disaster, and this speaks of the double complicity between Argentina and Brazil, getting into bed with a monster that nobody wants,” Carlos Vicente, a representative of the organisation GRAIN, told Lavaca.
The news began to circulate on Thursday morning from a Reuters cable: The National Biosafety Technical Commission of Brazil (CNTBio) had approved the request to authorise the sale in that country of flour derived from GM wheat, manufactured by the company Bioceres. The socio-environmental organizations describe the GM wheat as “much more toxic” than glyphosate because it is resistant to glufosinate ammonium, which is banned in the European Union.
The approval of the Brazilian agency was the last step to enable commercialisation, Lavaca points out. Brazil is the country to which 40% of Argentine wheat exports go. “This is the first transgenic wheat that has the potential to be commercialised in the world and thus be present in our bread and many of our staple foods along, with the pesticides with which it will be sprayed,” stated organisations and socio-environmental movements gathered in the Socio-Environmental Platform.
The Platform warned that at least 55 thousand hectares have already been planted in seven provinces, although it may be more. Vicente said: “When we first criticised the planting, we said that there were 25,000 hectares, because those were the data that came from the Ministry of Agriculture, but Bioceres presented a report to the New York Stock Exchange in which they speak of 55 thousand hectares. It is very serious because it is a massive amount – tons – of wheat that will end up contaminating the wheat chain before [this issue] is settled.”
Lavaca reports that the rejection comes not only from socio-environmental organisations and movements. “It is difficult to understand the reason for making and authorising such a volume of wheat production that cannot legally be marketed,” said the four rural entities grouped in the Liaison Committee (Rural Society, Agrarian Federation, CRA and Coninagro) in a statement to the Minister of Agriculture Julián Domínguez: “Such a high level of production makes it really impossible to control by the official authorities, which is why it will be inevitable that it will generate a process of contamination of non-genetically modified wheat.”
Hiding information from society
The concern of the supply chain is expressed in data:
* In volume, Argentina is the 6th world producer of wheat (2%), behind the European Union (18.8%), China (18.1%), India (13.6%), Russia (9.5%) and the United States (7%).
* In exports, it is the 4th main exporter (it has 4.3% of the market).
* In Argentina, wheat consumption exceeds 85 kilos per year per person, an average well above that of most countries.
The concern is demonstrated by the fact that according to Lavaca, there are already mills that are inserting in their purchase contracts clauses that grains be “free” from HB4 wheat.
Reuters also reported on threats from Brazilian mills to stop buying Argentine wheat. “Argentina does not have the capacity to separate this wheat from conventional wheat,” says Vicente. “So exports to Southeast Asia, to the European Union, will be rejected and bring commercial problems. The production chain today is seeking to identify the fields where it is being produced, because Bioceres did not make that information public. Neither did the Ministry of Agriculture. And that is very serious.”
Lavaca comments that this is a system practised by both corporations and governments – to hide information from the families who will be the ones who pay for this globally mistrusted product, without it appearing that they even have the right to know what kind of toxins and transgenics they will be feeding their children – despite the alerts about these substances from science.
The prosecutor: “Serious vices”
The approval of the Brazilian biosafety agency opens a new scenario. “There is a legal action underway by agroecological producers in the province of Buenos Aires and a precautionary measure is going to be requested,” Marcos Filardi, a lawyer specializing in human rights and food sovereignty, told Lavaca. He also mentions the class action lawsuit, “Giménez, Alicia Fanny and others against Monsanto, the National State and others”, brought on behalf of the entire Argentinian people for the damage caused by GMOs and their associated pesticides: “The different cases in Argentina and their impacts are being explored there. A ban on GM wheat was also requested and the prosecutor involved in the case has requested the suspension of any approval.”
Fabián Canda, head of the Federal Civil, Commercial and Contentious-Administrative Prosecutor's Office No. 8, ruled that resolution 41/2020 of the Ministry of Agriculture, which authorised the cultivation of HB4 (GM) wheat, should be suspended, “due to the serious flaws in its justification and the danger to the environment and human health that the distribution of the GM grain would imply”.
GM wheat is not marketed by Monsanto-Bayer, Syngenta-ChemChina, or Corteva (a Dow and Dupont merger). Instead, the driving force is Bioceres, a company made up of fifty agribusinessmen, among them the millionaires Hugo Sigman (president of the Insud Group, with a presence in forty countries, from pharmaceutical laboratories to the media), Gustavo Grobocopatel (the so-called “king of soybeans”) and Víctor Trucco (honorary president of Aapresid, an association that brings together agribusiness entrepreneurs and promoters of transgenics in Argentina). Bioceres is based in Rosario, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and advertises that it has “strategic alliances with world-leading companies, such as Syngenta, Valent Biosciences, Dow AgroSciences, Don Mario and TMG”.
“Don't mess with our bread”
The so-called “HB4 wheat” appeared in November 2018. Two years earlier, a dozen social organisations (Chair of Food Sovereignty of the University of Buenos Aires, Paraná Ecological Forum, and Action for Biodiversity, among others) had launched the campaign “Don't mess with our bread”, in which they stated: “We know that GMOs are a threat to biodiversity, to the environment and to everyone's health. We know that regulatory approvals and controls are, in Argentina’s case, not very serious. But this is worse. We don't want GM wheat or GM bread. We demand to know what we are eating.”
This transgenic variety was developed in Santa Fe by Raquel Chan, a professor who holds positions at the National University of Litoral (UNL), the Litoral Agrobiotechnology Institute, and the National Research Council, CONICET. She gained public notoriety when she developed a drought-resistant soybean. The former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and the then Minister of Science, Lino Barañao, hailed her as an example of productive science for the country.
Lavaca reports that over 1,400 Argentine scientists published an open letter to the national government warning about the dangers that this new GMO brings with it: Glufosinate ammonium, according to the FAO, is 15 times more toxic than glyphosate, in a country where more than 525 million kg/litres of pesticides are already used per year (around 12 litres per inhabitant, the highest rate in the world).
Everything indicates that the rejections of this wheat will continue, both in Argentina and in Brazil, as actions are planned on a massive scale to raise concerns about the approval. Vicente says: “In Brazil they don't want it – not only the social movements that we work with, but the wheat supply chain.”
He concludes: “There is no justification for it, except the whim of a corporation.”