Skip to content
menu icon

Gene technology comes into play on New Zealand pastures

The introduction of wheat-derived genes resulted in sorghum varieties with taller, stronger growth and improved drought resistance.
Photo: GRDC

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.

AgResearch, one of New Zealand’s seven Crown Research Institutes, is developing pasture research programs using gene technology – including gene editing – that aim to increase productivity, improve animal health and deliver environmental benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Three advanced projects underway are:

Gene-edited endophytes – Researchers are using gene-editing tools to change the DNA of endophytes, the fungi and bacteria that form a symbiotic relationship with plants. The natural ryegrass endophytes produce substances that deter insect pests from eating the host plant. This results in fewer chemical applications and increased milk and meat production. Unfortunately, some endophytes that protect ryegrass against pests also produce toxins that can be harmful to the livestock that feed on the ryegrass. Due to the strict regulatory environment in place for testing GM and gene-edited products in New Zealand, AgResearch and its partners are looking to undertake trials overseas.

High metabolisable energy (HME) ryegrass – Scientists are looking to advance productivity through improvements to nutritional quality by both increasing lipid content in the leaf and enhancing photosynthesis. Promising results also suggested environmental benefits such as reduced nitrogen loss and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide from using these varieties. Contained indoor testing of the HME ryegrass has been undertaken in New Zealand, as well as regulated outdoor growing trials in the US. Planning is underway for a lamb feeding trial late in 2024, with the feeding trial results informing the potential for future commercialisation.

High condensed tannin white clover – Researchers are exploring whether, by increasing the levels of condensed tannins (an important component of New Zealand pasture) in white clover, they can reduce the environmental impacts from livestock farming while improving both animal health and production. By integrating a gene taken from another species of clover, researchers have been able to create high levels of condensed tannins in the leaves of white clover.

Results from contained trials in New Zealand and the US indicate both environmental benefits – fewer methane emissions and nitrogen leaching – as well as animal health gains including a reduction in bloat and a reduction in the internal parasite burden of the livestock. In addition to the modified white clover bred and grown in contained conditions in New Zealand, three years of field trials have been completed in the US. Permission has also been granted for further field trials in Australia.

Wheat genes boost sorghum success

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are using gene technology to boost sorghum growth. The US is the biggest producer of sorghum globally, followed by India, Mexico, China and Nigeria. Sorghum is the world’s fifth-most-important cereal crop behind maize, rice, wheat and barley. Considered an ancient grain, sorghum is more drought tolerant than other cereals and can tolerate a range of temperatures, altitudes and soil types.

The introduction of wheat-derived genes resulted in sorghum varieties with taller, stronger growth and improved drought resistance. Researchers hope this will become a commercial crop with low environmental impact, which can both bolster global food supplies and serve as an affordable biofuel.

GM drought-tolerant wheat update

Bioceres, an Argentine company, has developed GM drought-tolerant wheat and soybean varieties. Its GM wheat has been approved for food and feed in 10 countries – including Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the US – but has only been approved for cultivation in Brazil and Argentina. Combined, Brazil and Argentina represent 90 per cent of South American wheat production.

Representatives of the US Wheat Associates (USW) travelled to Argentina recently to learn more about Bioceres Crop Solutions’ HB4 wheat technology. Bioceres has used the technology to develop its drought tolerant wheat and soybeans.

With climate change exacerbating droughts across the globe, clear solutions are needed to ensure the security of this critical grain. USW chair Michael Peters, who is a wheat grower from Oklahoma, says US growers are “very interested in learning more about the progress Bioceres is making with government approval applications for its drought tolerant wheat trait”.

Full steam ahead for Chinese GM crops

In a push for domestic food security, GM crops and gene technology saw a rapid expansion in China in 2023, including the approval of 37 varieties of GM corn and 14 varieties of GM soybeans in October, and a concerted government media campaign promoting the technology.

China Galaxy Securities estimates that, in terms of growing area, about 40 per cent of all China’s soybeans and corn will be genetically modified  in the six years following the shift.

The decision to approve so many GM varieties for commercial use at once is part of China’s push to pursue self-reliance in food security for its 1.4 billion population and reduce its dependence on overseas markets.

back to top