According to worldagriculturalproduction.com, total global soybean production documented for 2022 was 355.6 million tonnes (metric tons). This year’s estimated 391.17 million tonnes could represent an increase of 35.56 million tonnes, or 10%, in soybean production around the globe. The vast bulk of that huge figure is claimed by four countries: Brazil weighed in at 152 million tonnes, the U.S. at 118.266 million, Argentina at 49.5 million and China at 18.4 million tonnes.
The U.S. had been the world’s number one soybean producer up until 2019, when Brazil bumped them into second place. But Brazil’s cropping experts – most of them genetic engineering enthusiasts – are worried about the threat of drought and its potential disastrous impact on their number one crop. Two years ago, widespread moisture deficiency hurt that country’s soybean crop rather seriously.
According to gmwatch.org/en/106-news/latest-news/20203, Brazil’s National Technical Commission for Biosafety (CTNBio) recently decided that a very precisely gene-edited soybean, developed by the company Embrapa Soja, specifically edited for drought tolerance, is non-GMO (non-genetically modified organism), and therefore exempted it from the GMO regulations, thus meaning it will not have to carry a GMO label.
“By considering this soybean as non-GMO, the research processes are less bureaucratic and therefore we were able to reduce the time and costs for drought-tolerant cultivars to reach the market, with guaranteed biosafety,” said Alexandre Nepomuceno, general head of Embrapa Soja. According to this company, “Furthermore, there will be no need for us to conduct the complex process of commercial deregulation of a GMO product, which is time-consuming and costly.”
Further quoting Nepomuceno, “These tolerance sources do not necessarily have the high yield and health characteristics of the commercial cultivars. Therefore, the research team’s strategy was to use a highly productive cultivar and alter its DNA – via a gene editing technique – to produce a trait that aims to reduce productivity losses when droughts occur.”
But not everyone agrees that there is a functional distinction between gene-editing and genetic engineering. For example, Claire Robinson, who currently works at GMWatch, a pro-consumer NGO, does research in genetically modified crops and foods. Her opinion – along with that of Michael Antoniou, Ph.D. in molecular genetics – is that any difference between the terms “gene-edited” and “genetic engineered” is nothing more than distinction based on semantics.
What comes to my mind here is one of Shakespeare’s quotes from “Romeo and Juliet”: “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” What matters is what something actually is, not what it is called.
Robinson and Antoniou are firmly convinced “that resilient drought tolerance could be conferred by cross-breeding the naturally drought-tolerant soybeans available in the [Britain-based] Active Germplasm Bank, together with high performing varieties. As genetic modification is known to reduce the yield of soybeans, these high performing varieties used for the crossbreeding would be non-GM (not genetically modified). In fact, non-GM varieties of drought-tolerant soybeans have already been developed.”
They further state that crossbreeding utilizes whole gene families that work together in networks to create sustainable desirable traits, while gene editing can only manipulate one or a few genes at a time, meaning that the claimed drought tolerance may not prove durable in farmers’ fields. Additionally, they stress that the deregulation of the GM soy means that no safety testing will have been performed on it, meaning it could contain novel toxins or allergens.
Doubtless the researchers and Embrapa didn’t want to go down the crossbreeding route because the result would likely not be patentable. (GMOs, with their inherent intellectual property, are far easier to patent.) So we’re talking corporate dollar signs here.
Finally, resilient drought tolerance is achieved not primarily through genetics but by building healthy soil with lots of organic matter which holds moisture and enables plants to survive drought conditions, as well as preventing runoff and flooding in times of too much rain.
These two scientists are convinced that the underlying cause behind drought susceptibility is an environmental shortcoming, not a genetic imperfection that needs to be rectified.
What I find interesting is that the widespread adoption of modern biotechnology is accompanied by depletion of health-supporting organic matter. This problem, which was rampant in the U.S. (particularly the Mississippi Basin), is now increasingly universal in the Amazon Basin. The latter is mostly cropland that not long ago was tropical rainforest.
The resilience to moisture extremes – both too little and too much – is very much dependent on organic matter levels. So using gene-editing or outright GMOs to counter drought-related issues is more a matter of addressing symptoms rather than the actual problems. Referring back to my column’s title, if your house is too cold or too hot, it’s a good idea to close the window before adjusting the thermostat.
Organic matter depletion is a very serious, infrequently addressed issue. Modern biotechnology had enabled producers to injure soils and get away with such behavior – until they can’t. Part of what made drought damage so severe in America’s Heartland was the extreme loss of soil organic matter, which made the Mississippi Basin (which drains all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces) unable to store moisture for a non-rainy day.
In writing about this problem many weeks ago, I mentioned during Drought 2022 all three river branches – Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio – were seriously under-funded, moisture-wise. Losing three-quarters of their original topsoil in the last 170 years means that the states of Iowa and Illinois have lost natural in-soil reservoir capacity equivalent to the water volumes of New York’s Cayuga and Seneca lakes. There’s no way soybean or corn genes can be modified or edited to counterbalance that level of drought trauma.
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