THE world's first genetically modified wheat variety with drought tolerance was granted regulatory approval by Argentina's Ministry of Agriculture last week, with the variety a possibility for Australian growers if the right partnership can be formed.
Drought-tolerant HB4 Wheat is a patented seed technology developed by Trigall Genetics, a joint venture between Bioceres and Florimond Desprez.
In field trials conducted over the past 10 years, HB4 seed varieties increased wheat yields by 20 per cent, on average, during growing seasons affected by droughts.
Argentina's regulatory clearance follows approval of HB4 Soybean, which has been approved in other major production geographies, including the United States and Brazil which, together with Argentina, represent nearly 80pc of the world's total soybean acreage.
Bioceres chief executive officer Federico Trucco said approval of the HB4 Wheat in Argentina represents a ground-breaking milestone for the entire global value chain, given the substantial yield increases and significant environmental benefits that the technology offers.
"Sixteen years ago we began collaborating with Raquel Chan of CONICET and other scientists who discovered the sunflower gene that is the backbone of our HB4 technology," Mr Trucco said.
"Since 2009, field trials of HB4 Wheat have been underway and since 2013 Bioceres and Florimond Desprez have invested aggressively in breeding and Phase II regulatory activities.
"Yet, this is just the beginning of a monumental quest to transform wheat production systems globally, for the benefit of growers and consumers alike."
In Argentina, when combined with soil regenerative practices, such as no-till farming, a sharecropping system made possible by HB4 seeds captures more carbon than conventional growing practices.
For each hectare farmed per year, the resulting sequestration is equivalent to two months of carbon emitted by an automobile.
Substantially higher crop yields through HB4 also reduce the need to expand agriculture's global footprint, while aiding in the reversion of fragile agricultural land back to native ecosystems.
Closer to home, an agricultural biotechnology company hopes to bring the genetic modifications to Australia for use by local farmers.
Three years ago Bill Crabtree, commonly known as No-Till Bill, founded Green Blueprint - a company with the ambition to introduce herbicide tolerant, drought tolerant and frost tolerant wheat into Australia - alongside three fellow scientists.
Bioceres was created by members of the Argentinian No-Till Association, with which Mr Crabtree has been associated for more than 20 years through his work with the Western Australian No-Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA).
"We think that the trifecta of herbicide, drought and frost tolerance is the next quantum leap in yield which is required for WA farmers to remain profitable for their grandchildren who will stay on the farm," Mr Crabtree said.
"Unless we create a radical jolt and quick improvements, we can see we're going to be in trouble, so we formed Green Blueprint to help catapult new technologies that are needed.
"We're not afraid of going down the GM path, we're happy to do non-GM as well and we do think we can do frost tolerant wheat with a non-GM tool."
Green Blueprint is working with Bioceres to adapt an elite Australian wheat genetic material with the genes that the Argentinean company discovered.
"There are just two genes which they've added to 300,000 genes and those two genes will make the plant drought tolerant and the other helps with weed control," Mr Crabtree said.
"The idea is that those two genes will be added into our Australian varieties and sent back to us, after that we have to go through the approval process with the Australian government and we will then add our own non-GM gene for frost tolerance.
"It will be pretty much an elite Australian variety but with 1pc genetic material different."
Australian law requires the genetically modified variety to be grown in quarantine facilities initially, before being moved into the field which will hopefully happen in 2022.
However, Green Blueprint is only a small company which has had about $500,000 put in from eight different farmers and a couple of other investors.
The main difficulty the company is facing is finding a partner in Australia with the courage to take the GM variety market.
While Green Blueprint could do it itself, the cost is a little more than what it can reasonably bear, so it needs to find a partner to help take it to the market.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.