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Record harvest recorded as GM crops roll out

Trials testing the performance of genetically modified safflower are planned in Western Australia this winter.
Photo: CSIRO

The first genetically modified canola crops have been planted in South Australia following the lifting of a moratorium in place for the past 16 years. All other Australian mainland states allow GM crops to be grown, with cotton, canola and safflower varieties all approved for commercial release.

Access to GM canola varieties in South Australia comes on the back of a record 2020-21 harvest, the second-most-valuable on record at $2.5 billion farm gate value, according to the latest state government Crop and Pasture Report.

Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development David Basham says the final production estimate for the 2020-21 growing season is 16 per cent above the long-term average. “The 2020-21 harvest was a winner for the state’s economy and much-needed for our farmers following years of drought,” Mr Basham says.

“It is a credit to our farming regions that continually produce bumper crops on marginal land with minimum rainfall.

“The report found grain quality across the state was above-average, with more grain than average meeting premium grade specifications for wheat and barley.”

Grain Producers SA chair Adrian McCabe, who is growing a small amount of GM canola at his farm near Hamley Bridge this season, says the option to plant GM canola gives farmers another tool to consider.

Proposed roadmap to food security using biotechnology

An international group of economists, scientists and plant breeders have proposed a roadmap for future progress on the use of biotechnology to improve food security following concerns that progress has stalled.

University of Western Australia Institute of Agriculture associate director, Professor Wallace Cowling, and Adjunct Professor Ashwani Pareek from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, are members of the group, which recently published the article ‘Gaining acceptance of novel plant breeding technologies’ in Trends in Plant Science.

The article explains that climate change has significant and urgent risks for global food security, and that future crop production will face increasing stress and reduced inputs.

Although gene editing has been proven to be a rapid and precise way to improve crop resilience, Professor Cowling says scientists are yet to convince the public of the value of adopting available plant breeding technologies and this is stalling progress.

“As scientists, we recognise the potential of new biotechnology such as CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to improve crop resilience to global warming and drought caused by climate change,” he says.

“Future crops must have higher and more sustainable yields across a wider range of environmental variables and use less resources, particularly water and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, while having a minimal impact on the environment.”

“Future food security depends on accelerating crop genetic improvement using all sources of valuable genes – from biotechnology or from wild relatives of crop plants,” he says.

“Plant genes that help us combat climate change, such as heat or drought tolerance, may be designed through biotechnology as our knowledge improves. Our modelling suggests that we can keep pace with climate change and improve crop yields long into the future if valuable genes for heat tolerance are integrated into optimised plant breeding schemes.”

GM safflower trials set for WA

Following several years of trials on the east coast of Australia, GO Resources have announced their plans to trial their super high oleic GM safflower in Western Australia this winter.

About 10 trials are expected to take place in Moora, York, Kellerberrin, Merredin and throughout the south-west from May. If successful, the crop could be planted commercially as early as next year.

Developed by GRDC and CSIRO, the GM safflower has an oleic acid content of more than 90 per cent. The technology is now licensed to GO Resources, which aims to use the oils from the GM plants to develop “renewable, sustainable bio-based lubricants to replace harmful petroleum-based oils”.

Genetic cause of sorghum lodging

University of Queensland sorghum researchers have identified the genetic basis of sorghum lodging.

Sorghum is prone to falling over when carrying high grain yields. “Lodging is an issue that affects about 10 per cent of Australia’s sorghum crops a year, which are valued at $445 million,” says Professor David Jordan, a professorial research fellow at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).

“Losing a bumper grain crop because plants fall over is heartbreaking for growers and undermines efforts to increase production to improve food security,” he says.

Together with a team from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) at the Hermitage Research Facility in Warwick, Professor Jordan found that lodging occurs whenever water scarcity forces a halt to photosynthesis.

“This forces the plants to rely on carbohydrates stored in the stems. The metabolic shift ultimately weakens the stems, culminating in their death.”

By generating the new genetic map, we can now identify new leads for breeding greater lodging resistance into high-yielding sorghum hybrids.

Data from 14 growing seasons was analysed and a link between lodging incidence and water stress across regions and seasons was found.

“Our data also found that, despite substantial breeding efforts and turnover of commercial cultivars during the study period, the level of resistance to lodging appears not to have improved.”

The researchers found that traits used to drive up yields also introduced a susceptibility to lodging.

The researchers undertook one of the largest genome-wide association studies done in sorghum in the world to try and understand the genetic control of lodging. The study looked at 2308 unique hybrids grown in 17 Australian sorghum trials over three years.

Genetic mapping revealed that lodging is a complex trait in sorghum, with about 213 regions of the genome involved. That means variation in many genes can cause variation in lodging characteristics.

“By generating the new genetic map, we can now identify new leads for breeding greater lodging resistance into high-yielding sorghum hybrids,” Professor Jordan says.

The sorghum core pre-breeding project was supported by DAF, GRDC and the University of Queensland.

‘Relaxation’ gene helps plants reduce water loss

A gene usually associated with relaxation in animals has been found to help plants control the size of leaf pores to prevent water loss.

A team of Australian and German researchers, led by Dr Bo Xu of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, found that the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) molecule minimised pore openings in a range of crops such as barley, broad beans and soybeans, and in lab plants that produce more GABA than normal.

The research paper, published in Nature Communications, showed that when a plant has experienced drought stress previously, the GABA tells it to keep its pores closed in order to save water.

More information: Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia.

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