Australian know-how strengthens wheat's future

Research helps wheat breeders fast-track work on climate-adapted varieties

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Agriculture Victoria scientist Dr Matthew Hayden. PHOTO Supplied

Agriculture Victoria scientist Dr Matthew Hayden. PHOTO Supplied

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Wheat researchers safeguard bread wheat against climate change by tracing its origins.

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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.

Australian wheat researchers, as part of a global consortium, have traced the genetic origins of bread wheat back to 8000BC in a development that has implications for safeguarding this important staple crop against climate change. Their research has been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Having access to the genetic family tree will allow plant breeders to develop wheat varieties suited to the changing global climate faster and more accurately.

"This research enables wheat breeders to accelerate precision breeding of wheat varieties that are better adapted to a changed climate, which is critical to the future success of the grains industry," says Dr Matthew Hayden, an Agriculture Victoria scientist who co-authored the paper.

"We can now pinpoint, with an extremely high level of confidence, areas of the wheat genome that affect climate-related traits such as heat-tolerance, water use and fertiliser use.

"Researchers and breeders can use this information to develop new bread wheat varieties with more adaptive genes and improved heat stress tolerance, water-use-efficiency and nutrient-use-efficiency."

We can now pinpoint, with an extremely high level of confidence, areas of the wheat genome that affect climate-related traits such as heat-tolerance, water-use and fertiliser use. - Agriculture Victoria scientist Dr Matthew Hayden

GENE TECHNOLOGY TECHNICAL REVIEW 2001

The findings of the Technical Review of the Gene Technology Regulations 2001 were released in April by the Government Forum responsible for overseeing the review process, which began in 2016.

The review objective was to keep the GT Regulations up to date with advances in technology and increased scientific understanding.

This included providing clarity about whether organisms developed using a range of new technologies should be subjected to regulation as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and to ensure that new technologies were regulated in a manner commensurate with the risks they pose.

"Rapid technological developments in recent years have led to uncertainty about which techniques are considered gene technology in Australia," said then Minister for Regional Services, Senator Bridget McKenzie, who announced on behalf of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology the amendments to the Gene Technology Regulations.

The amendments make the legal position of genome editing clearer and means that SDN-1 (a site-directed nuclease technique):

  • poses no different risks;
  • can not be distinguished from conventional methods; and
  • does not require unnecessary regulation.

The argument is that this kind of gene editing is just a more precise way of producing genetic mutations - which plant breeders have been utilising for years.

This regulatory change places Australia in the middle, regulation-wise, of the tighter regulations in place in the European Union and New Zealand and the less-stringent approach of countries such as the US and Brazil.

Australia's food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), is currently reviewing how the Food Standards Code will handle food derived using new breeding techniques.

This regulatory change places Australia in the middle, regulation-wise, of the tighter regulations in place in the European Union and New Zealand and the less-stringent approach of countries such as the US and Brazil.

In August 2018, a preliminary report was released summarising the feedback received from public submissions.

An Expert Advisory Group on New Breeding Techniques has been established to provide expert advice to the review process.

This advice, together with feedback from the consultation process, will help inform a decision and final report by the end of the year.

In a related development, the Danish Council of Ethics recently released a report urging the European Union to change its regulatory system to focus on individual products, rather than the processes used to breed them.

TASMANIAN GM MORATORIUM UNDER REVIEW

The Tasmanian Government is reviewing its moratorium on the commercial release of GMOs into the environment before it expires in November.

The current moratorium, imposed for trade and market access purposes, has been in place since 2001. The review terms will consider:

a) The potential market advantages and disadvantages of allowing or not allowing the use of gene technology in Tasmanian primary industries, including food and non-food sectors;

b) Domestic and international gene technology policy relevant to primary industries;

c) Research and development relevant to the use of gene technology in primary industries; and

d) Any other relevant matters raised during the review.

The review will not consider aspects of gene technology which are already covered under Commonwealth legislation, including human health, safety and environmental impacts.

The Government was seeking the views of producers, suppliers, wholesalers, retailers and exporters on the benefits and costs of the moratorium from their perspective. Submissions closed at the end of April.

The Tasmanian moratorium was last reviewed in 2013 and extended in 2014.

This Tasmanian GM moratorium review follows the release of an independent review of South Australia's GM crops moratorium by Emeritus Professor Kym Anderson.

Released in February 2019, the review evaluated the benefits and costs of the GM moratorium to the South Australian economy and agricultural industries and contains 19 findings which are being considered by the State Government.

"Investment in agricultural science has suffered under the moratorium, with the review finding the GM moratorium has discouraged both public and private investment in research and development in this state," says Tim Whetstone, SA's Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development.

AMERICANS TAKING A BIGGER BITE OF GM APPLES

The company behind non-browning GM apples, Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) Inc, has added the Arctic Fuji variety to its suite of varieties available to customers in the US.

The apples are genetically modified to prevent browning when sliced, bitten or bruised.

This was done by 'silencing' a gene to reduce the enzyme polyphenol oxidase. It allows OSF to market its fresh and dried sliced apples as preservative-free. The conventional approach to preventing browning relies on chemicals.

The first non-processed, whole horticultural GM product to test the market, the Arctic brand has gone on the front foot in education and information about its products.

Its packaging includes information on biotechnology and there is a website dedicated to informing consumers about the products.

The Arctic Golden Delicious and Arctic Granny Smith apples were approved in 2015 and sold as both fresh-sliced and dried snack packs.

"We don't see much pushback. So far, not one person has called. Genetic modification is a big issue for some and not for others," says Neal Carter, the company's president, who expects production to increase five-fold in the coming season.

GRDC Research Code AAA00010

More information: www.abca.com.au

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