Via Liliana Samuel | AFP – Fri, Apr 27, 2012
Researchers in Argentina have isolated a drought-resistant sunflower gene and spliced it into soy, bolstering hopes for improved yields as the South American agricultural powerhouse grapples with global warming.
Raquel Chan's team identified the HAHB4 gene that makes sunflowers resist dry conditions and implanted it in rockcress flowering plants known as arabidopsis, whose resistance to drought increased considerably.
Her team has signed an agreement with Argentine firm Bioceres, which is co-owned by over 230 agricultural producers, to use and exploit the gene. The firm has conducted tests on soy, wheat and corn crops.
Soy is the biggest cash crop in Argentina, a major exporter of byproducts like soybean oil and flour, but the prospect of creating a transgenic soy plant has some experts concerned about the potential for environmental harm.
Supporters of the technology say the boost in productivity could mean as much as $10 billion in added profits each year, particularly after a severe drought recently slashed Argentina's soy output by more than a third.
But the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace said the transgenic seeds would promote deforestation and the expansion of soy crops into new regions such as Patagonia, as well as cause a "significant loss" in biodiversity and force thousands of farmers and native people to relocate.
And because it is genetically modified, the new soy seed would have little to no prospects of being sold in markets where such crops are opposed or outlawed, as in Europe.
Transgenic crops are far more widespread in South America, where environmentalists worry they could rush the shift to single-crop farming and denounce the encroachment of soy crops and the increased use of pesticides.
With an eye on feeding a world population set to rise from seven billion to 9.5 billion by 2050 and predictions of the worsening impact from climate change, scientists in many parts of the world are working on pinpointing genes that could help crops cope with harsher weather or marginal soils.
In separate projects reported this year, scientists in Australia developed strains of wheat and rice resistant to salt, enabling the crops to be grown in saline soils damaged by excessive irrigation or tsunami waves.
Once HAHB4 was artificially inserted in soy, wheat or corn, yields increased between 10 and 100 percent, depending on the crop's quality and local conditions.
"The tougher the environment, the more advantageous the transgenic plant," said Chan, who heads the Agrobiotechnology Institute at the National University of the Coast. She said the genetically modified crops also performed better in salty soil and, she suspected, in other arduous conditions.
The seeds do need some water, but only about 500 millimeters (20 inches) per year. The most productive areas receive an average 950 millimeters (37 inches) of rain per year.
Bioceres formed a joint venture named Verdeca with the US-based agricultural technology company Arcadia Biosciences to invest as much as $30 million to further develop the technology.
The deal, announced with great fanfare in February by President Cristina Kirchner, promises to increase productivity and profit in Argentina.
But the government has not yet licensed the seeds, setting a 2015 target date to do so.
Over the next three years, officials will first have to prove that the seeds are at least as nutritious as conventional ones, that they are neither toxic for animals or humans and that they do not have a negative impact on the environment and other crops.