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GM crops still delivering for farmers and the environment

Genetically modified crops such as Australian GM canola varieties have provided yield gains of between five and 22 per cent.
Photo: Carl Davies, CSIRO

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

The cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties worldwide since 1996 continues to deliver a more secure food supply, while increasing grower incomes and reducing environmental impacts, according to a report released by the UK-based PG Economics.

In 2018 alone, growers who planted GM crops increased their incomes by almost A$19 billion globally and reduced carbon emissions by 23 billion kilograms – the equivalent of removing more than 15 million cars from the roads.

“GM crop technology continues to make an important contribution to reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and securing global food supplies in a sustainable way. It has also helped lift many small, resource-poor farmers  and their families in developing countries out of poverty,” says Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics and co-author of the report.

Highlights from the peer-reviewed report include:

  • GM crops have reduced agriculture’s environmental impact through reduced greenhouse gas emissions resulting from growers adopting more-sustainable practices such as reduced tillage and the global reduction in application of crop protection products by 776 million kilograms, or 8.6 per cent, from 1996–2018;
  • positive return on investment for those using the technology, with growers in developing countries receiving $4.42, and growers in developed countries receiving $3.24, as extra income for each extra dollar invested in GM crop seeds in 2018. Overall, from 1996–2018, the net global farm income benefit was $225 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $96.7/hectare; and
  • crop biotechnology has contributed to global food security and reduced pressure to use new land in agriculture by improving yields through improved control of pests and weeds, which resulted in the additional global production of 278 million tonnes of soybeans, 498 million tonnes of corn, 32.6 million tonnes of cotton lint and 14 million tonnes of canola.

“This report confirms the importance of Australian farmers having access to innovative, safe and approved technologies to remain globally competitive and farm sustainably in a changing climate,” CropLife Australia chief executive officer Matthew Cossey says.

“Australia was an early adopter of GM technology in cotton. We have been growing cotton with GM traits since 1996 and now almost all of Australia’s cotton production is GM.

The economic gains and savings have been significant, with an average increase of on-farm income at $27.87/ha and the average reduction in weed control costs at $90.95/ha.”

“Since 1996, GM cotton has gained Australian farmers almost $1.1 billion,” Mr Cossey says.

“Canola is another important crop for Australia’s farming sector, with GM varieties delivering yield gains of between five and 22 per cent over their conventional counterparts.”

Gene-editing grant funds rust-resistant wheat quest

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) have received more than US$3 million to fund a three-year project to help growers reduce fungicide use by developing crops with improved resistance to pathogens, including rust resistance.

The scientists are using gene-editing technology to stack resistance genes that specifically recognise the pathogen’s proteins, so the plant can fight the pathogen, even if the pathogen mutates.

“We are excited to employ gene editing in wheat, as it will allow us to reduce farm inputs and produce more-sustainable wheat yields – more important than ever in the face of climate change,” says IGI co-lead researcher Ksenia Krasileva.

The use of gene-editing technology significantly accelerates the development of improved varieties compared to traditional crop breeding.

The public-private partnership involves the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in Washington DC and the 2Blades Foundation.

New plant genome research uncovers hidden features

An international team led by the University of Saskatchewan and researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has decoded the full genome for the black mustard plant, uncovering information that will benefit wheat, canola and lentil breeding programs.

Using a new genome sequencing technology that results in long ‘reads’ of genetic sequences, researchers have basically uncovered a ‘recipe’ for generating a genome sequence that works for any crop.

“The use of long-read sequence data has enabled unprecedented access to previously hidden features of plant genomes,” says Andrew Parkin, a University of Saskatchewan adjunct professor and Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre member.

“This provides not only insights into how crops evolve but enables the identification of novel structural variation – now known to play an important role in the control of many key agronomic traits,” he says.

According to a research article published in Nature Plants, they also found in the sequence multiple copies of certain genes that express specific traits. This could mean that certain traits, such as fungal resistance, could be expressed more strongly through several genes.

Plant cell wall discovery offers exciting possibilities

An international research consortium including University of Adelaide researchers has discovered an enzymatic reaction involving carbohydrates present in plant cell walls that contributes to important knowledge about how plant cell walls could be formed, structured and remodelled.

“Plant cell walls perform a number of essential functions, including providing shape to the many different cell types needed to form the tissues and organs of a plant, intercellular communication – and they play a role in plant/microbe interactions, including defence responses against potential pathogens,” says project leader Professor Maria Hrmova.

“This discovery is a new building block in our understanding of how the cell wall could be constructed. Once you understand how something is made, you can then look at constructing or deconstructing it in different ways,” Professor Hrmova says.

The findings have positive implications for the sustainability of plant-based industries such as agriculture, horticulture and forestry, and for biofuel production and food and materials processing.

Examples of applications presented by the researchers include plant cell wall remodelling to create higher-quality foods and deconstructing plant cell walls to obtain biofuels.

More information: Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia

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