Technology against drought crosses borders
CONICET/DICYT Tons of foods are lost due to the droughts, which are the main threat against crops and the situation worsens considering that for 2050 the estimate population will be 9 thousand millions. In 2012, a research team led by Raquel Chan achieved international impact after carrying out the first transgenic technology fully developed in Argentina: HB4. For more than 15 years, her research team has studied how plants adapt to the environment without knowing that their study would cross borders.
Currently, in the case of wheat, its final release will depend on the decision of the Dirección Nacional de Mercados Agropecuarios and in the case of the soy HB4, the approval of China is expected to be commercialized.
It is worth mentioning that in 2004 CONICET and the UNL patented one genetic construction that included the Hahb-4 sunflower and licensed it to the Argentine company Bioceres forming a successful private-public alliance. For Raquel Chan, “the company has a know-how and another point of view because they are agronomists, businessmen and we are molecular biologists and researchers. They have the knowledge and expertise in management that we scientists do not.”
Apart from food shortage and consequences of climate change, there is another problem: the most important crops worldwide –soy, wheat, rice and corn- do not grow as the world population does. “It is necessary to develop technologies so as not to have wars for food”, Raquel Chan, senior researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), and director of the Instituto Agrobiotecnológico del Litoral (IAL, CONICET-UNL) and full professor at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL).
HB4 technology as a landmark: national and international impact
With HB4, plants are more tolerant in droughts periods and have a better performance. This gene improves the adaptation capacity of plants under stress without affecting their productivity. “This does not mean that these plants can grow on deserts. As no living being can live without water, this technology allows them to tolerate for a longer period of time a lower water intake during their whole life cycle and a minor performance loss. That is to say, depending on the level of water deficit, a plant that does not have the technology either dies or has a poor performance”, Chan explains.
For this development, some conditions were combined: an ideal moment for public-private partnership, government support and commitment for this joint project from the company and the researchers.
“I hope we can develop technologies that transcend and mark a milestone. Argentina can produce its own technology so as to obtain more support for other CONICET institutes to transfer that technology.”
She adds: “Most laboratories in Argentina belong to the public sector and they do either one thing or the other, or they are molecular biologists or those who receive the technology from others and run the field tests. We are taking a giant step because we want to finish those stages to provide a company with a more finished product.”
In October 2015 it was possible to comply with all the regulatory requirements of the Ministerio de Agroindustria –which used to be the Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Pesca-. For the Comisión Nacional Asesora de Biotecnología Agropecuaria (CONABIA) the requirement was to be harmless to the environment. In the case of the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria (SENASA), the demanded to have a product free from toxic or allergen elements for humans and animals.
In the case of HB4 wheat, despite having achieved a favorable opinion from the CONABIA and the SENASA, its release depends on the Dirección Nacional de Mercados Agropecuarios, which analyses the commercial impact of being the first country in the world that releases this type of wheat. As regards HB4 soy, we are waiting for the approval of China because there is an international agreement that states that none transgenic soy can be sold from Argentina without the approval of China in our country as it is our main importer.