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GM crops help with global challenges of climate change and population growth, report says

AgResearch field trials testing the performance of GM High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass in the United States.
Photo: AgResearch

Research points to GM crops to help manage global climate and population challenges.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about, gene technology.

Genetically modified (GM) crops continue to help manage the pressing global challenges of increasing population, climate change and diminishing soil and water resources, according to the latest report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

ISAAA advocates that biotechnology and, more specifically, GM crops, can be used to develop stress-tolerant and more nutritious crop varieties to protect natural resources and human health.

They can also be considered as a tool for improving crop yields and helping increase income for food-insecure farmers, the report says.

GM adoption on the rise

According to the report, the 'Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops: 2018 (Brief 54)' , documents the global database on the adoption and distribution of GM crops annually.

It also outlines the circumstances in individual countries and the technology's future prospects around the world.

Highlights from 2018 were:

  • In the twenty-third year of their use, 191.7 million hectares of GM varieties were grown across 26 countries in 2018 - an increase of 1.9 million hectares.
  • The average GM crop adoption rate in the top five GM crop-growing countries increased in 2018. These countries are close to saturation, with the United States at 93.3 per cent (average for soybeans, maize and canola adoption); Brazil at 93 per cent, Argentina at about 100 per cent, Canada at 92.5 per cent and India at 95 per cent.
  • A total of 70 countries adopted GM crops; 26 countries cultivated them and 44 additional countries imported GM products.
  • Of the 26 countries growing GM crops, 21 were developing and five were industrial countries. Developing countries grew more than half (54 per cent) of the global GM crop area.

More options for consumers

GM crops were found to provide more diverse options for consumers in 2018, expanding beyond maize, soybeans, cotton and canola to include lucerne, sugar beets, papaya, squash, eggplant, potatoes and apples, all of which are now in the market.

Specifically, two generations of Innate® potatoes with non-bruising, non-browning, reduced acrylamide and late blight resistant traits, as well as non-browning Arctic® apples, have been planted in the US.

The first insect resistant (IR) sugarcane was planted in Brazil; the first drought tolerant sugarcane was planted in Indonesia; and the first high oleic acid safflower for R&D and seed propagation was planted in Australia.

Various trait combinations were also approved, including high oleic acid canola; isoxaflutole herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton; stacked herbicide tolerant and high oleic acid soybean; HT and salt tolerant soybean; IR sugarcane; and GM maize with various IR/HT combinations.

In terms of research in the pipeline: GM crop research being conducted by public sector institutions spans rice, bananas, potatoes, wheat, chickpeas, pigeon peas and mustard, with various economically important and nutritional quality traits beneficial to food producers and consumers in developing countries.

New Zealand GM ryegrass update

Forage scientists from New Zealand's Crown Research Institute, AgResearch, have been trialling GM High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass in the United States.

This new potentially environmentally sustainable grass is said to strike a balance between reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved drought tolerance and increased productivity.

The AgResearch trials aim to test whether its performance in the field is similar to that observed in controlled environment studies.

"The HME ryegrass has performed well in controlled growing conditions. We are growing the plants in field trials in competition with one another, just as they would grow in pasture, and the plants are doing well," says Dr Greg Bryan, AgResearch principal scientist.

In AgResearch laboratory trials, the HME ryegrass:

  • grew up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass;
  • stored more energy for better animal growth;
  • was more resistant to drought; and
  • produced up to 23 per cent less methane (the largest single contributor to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions) from livestock.

This research is funded by the NZ Government and industry partners, including DairyNZ.

Tasmania extends ban

The Tasmanian Government announcement to extend that state's GM ban came just days before the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which stated: "Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming well below 2°C can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food. The use of GM crops globally is responsible for savings in CO2 emissions of 27 billion kilograms, the equivalent of removing 90 per cent of passenger cars registered in Australia from the road for one year."

According to a State Government media release, a Bill to amend the Genetically Modified Organisms Control Act will be tabled in the Tasmanian Parliament.

The Tasmanian Gene Technology Policy and associated Gene Technology Guidelines providing detail on how the moratorium is implemented will also be updated.

Media reports indicate that the Tasmanian Government plans to include gene editing in the state's GMO moratorium.

This is despite developments this year under the National Gene Technology Scheme that, from October, organisms modified using the SDN-1 technique will no longer be regulated as GMO because they are considered indistinguishable from organisms that have naturally occurring mutations.

Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister Guy Barnett says a regulation will be made under the state's Gene Technology Act to ensure that SDN-1 modified organisms are regulated as GMOs in the agrifoods sector for marketing purposes following stakeholder consultation.

Academy launches GM resource

The Australian Academy of Science has released a Q&A booklet on genetic modification to help raise awareness and clarify misconceptions about the technology.

The booklet covers the science, regulation, products available, research underway and the potential benefits of the technology, such as environmental and health safety, reduced use of pesticides, improved nutritional value from enriched crops and increased farm yields.

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