Hello! I just got back from a busy week in Rosario, Argentina, where I learned a ton about GMOs from many different perspectives. Over the next few days, I’ll publish three posts with what I learned from talking to scientists, the public, and farmers. Of course spending five days in a place isn’t enough to create generalizable knowledge about entire populations, but I think you’ll still find my conversations interesting.
First, a bit about Rosario, which some call “the Chicago of Argentina” because it serves as the central hub/port for national grain trading and transport. 80% of Argentina’s grain passes through Rosario, most of it on its way to China and Europe. It was a lovely city to explore, and running along the Parana River reminded me of Lake Michigan.
On Tuesday I visited the INDEAR Instituto de Agrobiotechnología Rosario. This organization is a small biotech company specializing in the production of seeds and biosolids. It differs from the large American seed companies that many are familiar with in several ways. First, they are not a large well-known company, so to gain international regulatory approval, INDEAR teams up with other small biotech companies who help them navigate the regulatory processes in their respective countries. In this way, INDEAR considers itself a “multi-local” instead of a multinational company. Second, though they have a small seed division, their primary business is biotech. In Argentina, there are a number of seed companies that buy genetic traits from biotech companies; on the other hand, in the U.S., the biggest biotech companies are also the biggest seed companies. The Argentine model promotes more competition, which an INDEAR leader said can dramatically lower their costs of trait development.
INDEAR hasn’t yet commercialized any GM trait, but is currently obtaining international regulatory approval for drought-resistant soy, wheat, and alfalfa. If the technology is approved, it will be the first GM wheat to be commercialized. The gene for drought tolerance is originally from a sunflower, which one scientist emphasizes on her regulatory applications because “it’s something we’ve all already eaten.” One difference between drought-resistant GMOs and herbicide-resistant GMOs (described in a previous post), is that drought resistance is measured on a spectrum, and is not a definte trait that can be easily tested by spraying a plant with herbicide. The INDEAR scientists said that this makes it more challenging to gain acceptance for the trait.
Does INDEAR receive much consumer pushback for working with GMOs? The scientists said no, because they are a small company and have yet to officially commercialize anything. In Argentina, Monsanto is the notorious bad guy, which one INDEAR scientist said keeps the attention away from them. What do the INDEAR scientists think about the strong anti-GMO movement in Argentina? They say that as part of the industry, they have to be pro-biotech. In response to the fear of agrochemicals, they say that insect repellent, sausage, and Argentina’s beloved mate yerba have also been proven to be carcinogens. Tomorrow I’ll dive into the public response to biotech in Argentina, so check back soon for a post with less technicality and more controversy!