Brazil has given the green light to imports of flour made from genetically modified wheat that’s being grown and harvested in Argentina, creating a pathway for potential acceptance around the globe.

After about a year of consideration, the once obscure Brazilian regulatory agency CTNBio last week approved importation of flour made from wheat that is genetically engineered for drought tolerance. The decision came despite warnings from the domestic farming, milling and baking sectors.

Earlier this year, Trigall Genetics, a Uruguay-based joint venture of the Argentine company Bioceres and the French company Florimond Desprez, said it submitted approval applications for its genetically engineered HB4 wheat to regulatory agencies in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The companies are also seeking approval for the wheat they say can better withstand drought conditions in Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Colombia.

Bioceres CEO Frederico Truco says applications for approval will be made in more countries soon.

The Argentine and Brazilian approvals are the breakthroughs that the companies are hoping will pave the way.  

Argentina made the decision in 2017 to allow farmers to plant HB4 wheat on thousands of acres – effectively declaring the grain fit for human and animal consumption, with the provision that it could not be commercialized unless Brazil also approved it.

That controversial decision by Argentina was based both on science and commerce. Brazil is one of the top five wheat-importing nations in the world, according to data from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Brazil imports about 7 million metric tons of wheat annually, making up about half of the country’s annual consumption. Argentina supplied 77% of Brazil’s wheat imports for the first 11 month of the 2020-21 marketing year. In contrast, the U.S. supplied 5.7%.

Earlier this year, as the Brazil continued its deliberations on HB4, the Brazilian Wheat Industry Association, known as Abitrigo, announced that millers were threatening to stop buying Argentine wheat if the approval was granted.

“In an internal survey promoted by Abitrigo … it was concluded that the wheat industries in Brazil are against the use of genetically modified wheat and almost all mills are willing to stop their purchases of Argentine wheat, if they start commercial production in that country and its export to Brazil,” the group said in a statement released earlier this year.

Brazil has only agreed to import flour – not the genetically modified wheat it is made from – but Brazilian millers are concerned that identity preservation measures will not keep HB4 from mingling with traditional wheat supplies.

Abitrigo also issued a scathing assessment last week after the decision was published by Brazil’s CTNBio.

“Despite the strong rejection of the international market in the last 20 years, unfortunately, Brazil will become known as the first country to approve the use of transgenic wheat in the world,” Abitrigo President Rubens Barbosa said in a statement. “This decision, fraught with uncertainties in the context of developments before the market and the international community, was taken based on criteria that affect safety, without further study of market conditions and consumer behavior … The possible impact on Brazilian exports of by-products (pasta, biscuits and bread) and unpredictable breakdowns on the image of agribusiness cannot be ignored.”

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The next step for Bioceres and Florimond Desprez is to get approval to grow its HB4 wheat in Brazil, and that effort is underway, Truco said earlier this month.

Truco said the companies do not see commercialization in the United States in the near term.

“Our team made a formal submission for HB4 wheat production approval to the USDA in the United States,” he said. “Although this is not an immediate opportunity for us, certain regions of the U.S. represent attractive … markets.”

The U.S. industry isn’t ready for genetically modified wheat. Wheat farmers could make use of the technology, but exporters are concerned that importers in major international markets like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines would reject all U.S. wheat if GE versions were grown commercially in the U.S., say industry sources.

Japan and South Korea both placed temporary restrictions on U.S. wheat about five years ago after a Washington state farmer discovered 22 unapproved genetically modified wheat plants growing in in his fields.

The National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates say they recognize “the benefits and value which could be created within the wheat chain through the prudent application of modern biotechnology,” but only after major foreign wheat export markets have already approved imports and there are systems in place to keep transgenic and non-transgenic wheat separate.

Spokespersons for the two groups declined to comment for this story.

But farm groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia are in sync on the issue.

“We share the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in our wheat crops and timely regulatory approval for those traits in importing countries,” farm groups in all three countries said in a 2014 statement. “The coordinated introduction of biotech wheat will help maintain a healthy and competitive global marketplace. We recognize that we are still at the early stages of a process that could last up to a decade, but we remain committed to responsibly advance wheat innovation.”

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