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Why are corporations failing to impose GM wheat on the world?
Why are corporations failing to impose GM wheat on the world?

In early August, Science magazine published a manifesto by two biotechnologists that the world lacks genetically modified wheat - with its help, in their opinion, it would be possible to fight dangerous diseases that threaten the agricultural sectors of the economies of developing countries.

After reading the manifesto, N + 1 decided to figure out why there is still not a single GM wheat variety on the market and whether we really need it.

The authors of the manifesto, Brande Wulff and Kanwarpal Dhugga, work at the John Innes Biotechnology Center in the UK and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. In an article for Science, they do not report any support from producers of GM varieties, but the non-profit organizations that fund both centers are promoting agricultural biotechnology.

According to scientists, the lack of interest in GM wheat among developers is primarily due to pressure from public activists fighting against GMOs. At the same time, they write, genetic modification could, for example, protect wheat from blast, a dangerous fungal disease first discovered in Brazil and from there spread across South America and other continents. In 2016, blast disease, which is carried with contaminated grain, was found in Bangladesh, where quarantine is still maintained and from where the disease can spread across Southeast Asia and reach India. In wheat, resistance to this disease is very low, but the corresponding genes have already been found in its wild relative, the cereal Aegilops tauschii.

The authors believe that Bangladesh would be ready to introduce genetically modified wheat to protect against blast disease, as it recently approved GM eggplant for growing and is preparing to grow GM potatoes that are resistant to late blight. But for this it will be necessary for someone to create GM wheat, scientists write.

Complex genetic object

What we call wheat in everyday life is several types of plants, primarily soft wheat (Triticum aestivum) and durum wheat (Triticum durum). The former is used to make bread flour and wheat malt, while the latter is used to make couscous, bulgur, traditional Italian pasta and other products. Durum wheat accounts for only 5-8 percent of all wheat grown; according to official statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in 2016, humanity grew at least 823 million tons of wheat on a total cultivated area of ​​221 million hectares. This makes wheat the second largest crop in terms of total crop production after corn.

Wheat production in the world, million tons

All wheat that is grown and sold in the world does not belong to GMOs: now in no country is any variety of GM wheat approved for commercial cultivation. In the database of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which collects data on GM varieties of cultivated plants, only nine varieties of common wheat are registered with a variety of properties, from herbicide resistance to high protein content (the database clearly does not cover all projects and countries, since not all states - for example, neither the United States nor Russia - have not ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to this convention). But none of these varieties have gone beyond the approval of experimental crops for scientific purposes. There is no data on GM-varieties of durum wheat in the database.

MON71800, developed by Monsanto, came closest to approval: like many other well-known GM varieties, MON71800 is resistant to glyphosate (this is the so-called Roundup Ready wheat).In 2004, the company even received the necessary approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, but did not complete an approval process from another agency, the EPA. The media then wrote that the project, which took at least $ 5 million and seven years, was canceled due to opposition from farmers who feared that the spread of GM wheat in the United States would deprive them of access to the skeptical European market. Monsanto N + 1 did not answer the specific question of whether the company is currently developing GM wheat varieties, but said it remains "committed to continuous innovation in wheat through biotechnology and genetic editing."

From time to time, news about the development of GM varieties appeared after 2004: for example, one of Monsanto's partners, the Indian company Mahyco, in 2013 was going to conduct field trials of herbicide-tolerant wheat (to question N + 1, the company replied that now it is not deals with GM wheat). Research on GM wheat resistant to fusarium spike was also carried out by Syngenta, but this project was suspended, says Igor Chumikov, director for the regulation of varieties and biotechnological traits of plants in the CIS of Syngenta in Russia. Bayer CropScience said last year that it does not see GM wheat as its global priority, but hybrids.

According to experts interviewed by N + 1, there are at least 500 varieties of GM wheat at different stages of testing in the world, and in the absence of interest in it on the American and European markets, the leaders were, for example, Australia and China. In Australia, the national research organization CSIRO applied for approval this spring to test durum and soft wheat with resistance to wheat rust, a fungal disease that affects cereals. The tests were planned to take five years; apparently CSIRO got permission for them (the organization itself was unable to answer N + 1 questions). In 2017, testing of GM wheat with higher yields began in the UK and will continue there until the end of 2019.

At the same time, the lack of approved varieties does not mean that GM wheat does not grow anywhere in the world: stories about how, somewhere in the fields, unauthorized and unknown where genetically modified wheat is found, have been happening since at least 1999. One such story happened in Canada last summer: in June of this year, Canadian authorities confirmed that wheat along a country road in southern Alberta, which survived the herbicide treatment, turned out to be genetically modified (what kind of variety it was, was not specified; in 2017, in the country there were 54 limited field trials of GM and hybrid wheat, 39 of which specifically targeted herbicide resistance - none of which took place in Alberta.) Because of this unexpected wheat, Japan and South Korea suspended wheat imports from Canada, and the Canadian minister had to call his EU counterpart and explain that this wheat was not found anywhere but in one field in Alberta.

The largest wheat producers in the world, million tons

“Among all the crops that are now cultivated, wheat is perhaps one of the most difficult objects for selection. Common wheat is a polyploid, it has a hexaploid genome (the cell nucleus contains three elementary genomes A, B and D, that is, six sets of chromosomes, there are 42 of them - N + 1). 99 percent of all varieties that are now cultivated are precisely bread wheat varieties, a very complex genetically object. In addition, wheat belongs to the monocotyledonous class, so all work on its genetic modification was less successful in comparison with other crops and was started later, "says Dmitry Miroshnichenko, senior researcher at the BIOTRON laboratory of expression systems and modification of the plant genome at Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry RAS.

Symbolic barrier

The difficulties of working with wheat are not limited to the crop itself: Miroshnichenko says that the technological lag is associated with methodological problems. For the genetic modification of all cultures, two standard methods are used: agrobacterial transformation, when genes are transferred using bacteria of the genus Agrobacterium and their plasmids, and the bioballistics method, the transfer of genetic sequences using the so-called gene gun - a device that "shoots" particles of heavy metals from DNA into the form of the same plasmids. According to the scientist, now in Europe, the USA, Asia and other countries, only GM plants are allowed, which were obtained using the agrobacterial method, in which it can be confirmed that only one foreign insert is present in the genome of a modified plant, and not several, as usual gives bioballistics. For transgenic wheat, the agrobacterial method was developed only in the last ten years, says Miroshnichenko.

“Twenty years ago, everyone expected the commercial cultivation of GM wheat to be tomorrow. I suspect this did not happen for several reasons, and many of these reasons are common to wheat and rice. The point, of course, is not that there are any significant biotechnological barriers to creating these varieties,”notes plant genomics specialist Hugh Jones of Aberystwyth University in Wales. Jones believes that the attitude towards wheat in society is different from, say, corn or soybeans: for many peoples "wheat has great cultural symbolism." Therefore, he suspects, negative attitudes towards GM wheat are deeper than towards other foods. Miroshnichenko agrees: “From a social point of view, wheat is the main grain crop, it is bread and so on. The public perceives its genetic modification negatively."

There are more pragmatic difficulties, says Jones: wheat is the most traded crop and commodity, and it is difficult to separate GM wheat from conventional wheat. Even if one country allows the cultivation of genetically modified wheat, it will immediately face export bans to other countries, which will be very strict due to the threat of biosafety. If GM wheat is allowed, then it will have to be allowed everywhere, the scientist said.

Kanwarpal Dugga, one of the authors of the manifesto in Science, in an interview with N + 1 notes that almost all GM plant varieties available on the market were developed, tested and grown in the USA, and from there they went to other markets (with the exception of Bt eggplant with resistance to insect pests, created in India). “Despite all the safety data gathered over twenty years for GM corn and GM soybeans, they are still not grown outside the Americas,” says Dougga, adding that American farmers export half of all wheat they grow. decisions - to accept or not to accept GM wheat - will inevitably be guided by the importing countries.

At the same time, Dougga does not believe that wheat is fundamentally different from other GM crops in terms of consumer rejection, because in all countries where anti-GMO moods exist, they relate primarily to food that people themselves eat., and not, for example, animals. “Even the most active opponents of GMOs in Europe - Austria, France, Germany - import GM corn and GM soybeans as animal feed,” the scientist notes.

The consumer does not see any benefit

“There is not a single specific property for wheat that is of great importance. In addition, there is no consensus in the industry as to which trait would be the most valuable,”said William Wilson, GM wheat expert and professor at North Dakota State University.Dmitry Miroshnichenko says that the traits obtained for most other commercial GM crops - herbicide resistance and insect resistance - are not relevant for wheat: “These two traits are not the ones that should be dealt with in the first place, because they have limited commercial value in the cultivation of wheat. When Monsanto sought permission in the United States in 2004 to grow herbicide-tolerant GM wheat, they withdrew the application precisely because the GM trait had little commercial value. The negative attitude towards the cultivation of GM wheat at that moment "overpowered" the possible commercial success, "- says the scientist.

The traits that one would really like to get from GM wheat are the same traits that breeders struggle with, Miroshnichenko notes. “Firstly, it is resistance to unfavorable factors - depending on where the wheat is grown, it is either drought and high temperatures, or, conversely, low temperatures and frosts, as well as resistance to an increased salt content in the soil, and so on. The second group of traits that is in great demand is resistance to phytopathogens, in particular, to a number of fungal diseases, these are fusarium, rust, powdery mildew, and so on,”he says. In these areas, there is a lot of research on GM wheat, although there are more exotic ideas: for example, in Australia, CSIRO is developing wheat that lowers blood cholesterol levels due to the increased content of beta-glucans.

So far, there are no clear successes in these areas: Americans, Europeans and Chinese "have focused on simpler cultures that would have an effect faster," adds Miroshnichenko. “For wheat, for a long time, the question has been about which trait can be modified genetically in such a way that it would give a commercially tangible effect in increasing yields in unfavorable conditions, while at the same time, in favorable years, the yield does not decrease. Compared to other crops, especially dicotyledonous ones, modification of seemingly the same genes sometimes does not lead to the expected effects in wheat,”says the researcher.

Wilson notes that in practice, any trait that improves crop quality and lowers costs for farmers would be very beneficial. “Farmers would like to get [GM wheat] … This could increase yields, reduce costs and risks, and improve quality. But consumers in this case are a very loud minority,”says the scientist.

At the same time, Dougga takes a broader view of the problem: in most GM crops today, their new beneficial properties are beneficial to growers, not to consumers. "Perhaps if we had GM wheat varieties with benefits for consumers, for example, in the form of some obvious health benefits, the situation with the opposition to GM wheat could change," the scientist suggests.

The future of "CRISPR-wheat"

In November 2009, the journal Nature Biotechnology published an article that the developers of GM plants once again "turned their face" to wheat: Monsanto promised the first GM varieties already in that decade, and Bayer CropScience - the one that today prefers genetic modification to hybrids - together with the Australian CSIRO planned to bring its product to the market by 2015. A decade later, scientists surveyed by N + 1 are still optimistic, but for different reasons.

“I think that biotech wheat will appear anyway, because research on genomic editing with CRISPR / Cas systems has stimulated the development of this direction in the last five years. I think that promising varieties of biotech wheat will definitely appear in the near future, since there are already quite good developments in China and the United States, by analogy with rice or corn,”says Miroshnichenko.

William Wilson also pins his hopes on CRISPR / Cas and other technologies of genome point editing: in his opinion, things will be better with "CRISPR-wheat".Dougga agrees, citing the waxy maize of Corteva AgriScience (formerly known as DuPont Pioneer), which is preparing to enter the market. Miroshnichenko says that Chinese scientists have already reported about the possibility of genomic editing of one of the Mlo wheat gene loci, which is indirectly responsible for resistance to phytopathogens. "But nothing is yet known about how much a change in this gene affects the yield of the plant and the manifestation of other traits, this is still at the stage of study," the scientist notes. Similar studies are emerging in the United States. Another group of Chinese scientists showed how CRISPR / Cas can help overcome the difficulties with hexaploid wheat, in which, in order to obtain a stable new trait, the same changes must be made in all copies of the gene.

Finally, scientists hope that CRISPR / Cas will help develop hybrid wheat, which is not currently on the market - it is technically difficult to mass produce self-pollinated wheat hybrids. “I think this direction has great potential. Many modern crops - soybeans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and so on - are all hybrids that can increase yields and resilience. By agrotechnical methods, we can already say that we have reached the threshold for increasing the yield of wheat. The emergence of hybrids will help to significantly increase yields in the future,”says Miroshnichenko. Igor Chumikov from Syngenta draws attention to hybrid wheat obtained by traditional breeding methods: according to him, hybrid wheat allows "to provide a quality that is much higher than the quality of varietal wheat." Syngenta has been developing winter hybrid wheat for the EU for the past several years and expects to bring it to the market “within the next three to five years,” Chumikov said.

True, the European Court of Justice in July of this year somewhat upset CRISPR enthusiasts by actually equating such developments with GMOs: this apparently means that in at least one large and important wheat market, problems with the perception of such products will not go away. While the world is figuring out what is considered genetic modification and what is not, the "improved" wheat may never get out of the vicious circle in which it must be approved by all of humanity at once, and the calls of scientists "not to leave wheat an orphan among GM crops" will not remain heard.

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