Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 059 December-January 2006 - North
GM canola So near, yet so far n Farming brothers Greg and Brian Petrass decided not to sow any canola this year because of the late start. Nonetheless, there is a small corner of their farm near Horsham, Victoria, that does have a canola crop, dry-sown and flourishing. Over the past few months this five- hectare patch of green and gold has been a tantalising window to a future that they are powerless to grasp – because it is a GM crop, one of the latest lines in the ongoing development by Bayer CropScience of its InVigor® hybrid canola. The company has been developing InVigor® hybrid canola in Australia since 1996 and has seven farmers hosting field trials in Victoria, and one in South Australia, in expectation that one day the prohibition on growing GM canola commercially will be lifted. InVigor® canola has been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Liberty® (glufosinate-ammonium). It remains susceptible to all other herbicides used to control conventional canola. Also, the parent plants have been genetically modified with a gene that prevents the production of pollen to create the InVigor® hybrid. Bayer CropScience plant breeder Dr David Pike says it is the natural hybrid vigour that gives the variety its higher yields and increased tolerance to production stresses such as low soil moisture levels. As with all hybrids, this agronomic benefit falls away after the first generation; something that farmers thinking about keeping seed for the following season need to bear in mind. In Canada InVigor® hybrid canola has been grown since 1997, and the Canadian experience, and trials in Australia, show that the company’s GM hybrid variety has the potential to out-yield conventional open- pollinated varieties by 10 to 20 per cent. However, the performance of any crops grown from second-generation seed will be on a par with conventional varieties. Hybrid vigour is a feature of the first generation only. This is true of all hybrid crops, be they GM-induced or conventional crosses. The second-generation volunteers of GM hybrids will have similar vigour to conventional canola. In other words, any volunteers from an InVigor® hybrid canola crop will have similar vigour and survival characteristics to conventional canola. All this has been the subject of claim and counter-claim in the letters pages of some rural newspapers, but growers like the Petrass brothers are able to judge from experience. “I was looking at those trial plots and feeling pretty envious,” said Greg in late September when follow-up rains were urgently needed for the brothers’ conventional crops – wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas. “We’ve been hosting GM trials for Bayer since 1998 and in dry seasons the GM hybrid varieties have always come through better than the normal varieties we grow.” Greg became interested in joining the GM trials because at the time he regarded the technology as “a saviour for agriculture. “Of course I now understand there is no such thing as a saviour, but I do understand the importance of a wide choice of rotations because weeds are becoming such a problem. A herbicide-tolerant canola would give us another option as and when required.” Greg said that despite the controversy over the moratoriums he believed they had played an important role because they had made him, as a grower, more aware of the work of regulatory bodies like the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). “The regulations are tight and to see the way the breeders and companies have responded has only increased my confidence in the whole system.” Nonetheless he said it was frustrating to be aware, as a grower hosting GM trials, of the potential that exists far beyond herbicide tolerance. “There are enormous opportunities … from tolerance to a range of production constraints, to nutritional enhancements in functional foods. “And the worst thing is our competitors are already taking advantage of this.” Brian said they had watched the hybrid varieties steadily lift in yield and overall performance, and had become increasingly dismayed the longer this was being held from them. “For example, 90 per cent of the chemicals we use are group A and B herbicides. GM canola would open the way to using group N chemicals which haven’t been exposed to over-use and resistance. “This is the sort of management flexibility that the technology brings. We might only need to use a group N chemical one in four years to keep weeds under control.” Another Victorian farmer who has been hosting GM canola trials is Geoff Emmerson from Clear Lake, 50 kilometres south-west of Horsham. He has five hectares of early, mid and late-maturing GM varieties. “I Growers who host trials of GM canola have tended to keep a low profile, given the tensions that the GM debate has raised. However, some are now speaking out, realising they hold a unique position in this issue. Brad Collis reports definitely believe in the technology and its future, although in the short term it’s just another tool – one that will help us reduce the cocktail of sprays we currently use.” Ironically, Geoff said he started out as an organic farmer, but this led to over-cultivation: “We could see this was destroying the soil, so we moved to no-till … and now have a weed problem requiring extensive herbicide use. “So while everyone is saying we should be scared of GM canola, I’m more concerned about all the chemicals we have to use.” Geoff said most growers realised that GM canola was not the be-all and end-all: “It’s really just an option; opening up the chance to periodically use different chemicals – or smaller amounts of the right chemicals against weeds which haven’t developed resistance.” DeCeMBer 2005/January 2006 GrounD Cover Greg and Brian Petrass are waist-deep in GM canola, but still wonder if they will ever reap the benefts which they believe the technology offers. PHotoS: BraD ColliS At least a dozen new scientists are now expected to join the 100-strong team. “The GRDC was a key visionary in advocating our corporate structure,” says general manager Michael Gilbert. “We are able to conclude deals like this one in a streamlined, efficient way. The structure is attractive for potential partners.” Improving plants’ ability to cope with abiotic (environmental) stresses, such as drought, is a major target of the new collaboration. Three projects have been identified so far. The first will research nitrogen-use efficiency. The second will investigate how crops resist storm damage and how cellulose can be used, as a residue in straw, as an animal feed or a biofuel. The third will focus on drought tolerance. The GRDC has a 26 per cent shareholding in the ACPFG. ÆGRDC Research Code ACP00001 For more information: Peter Langridge, 08 8303 7368 $2.3M reSearCH Deal 11 Bayer CropScience plant breeder Dr David Pike (right) talks to growers at the site of one of the company’s GM trials. n The Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics Pty Ltd (ACPFG) has signed a major research agreement with Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc, a Du Pont company, based in Iowa, US. The agreement brings $2.3 million in research funding to Australia, offering the Australian grains industry an opportunity to access the best international crop science available. “This deal is our first major agreement with a large US commercial company,” says ACPFG chief executive Professor Peter Langridge. “It is a great achievement.” Pioneer Hi-Bred International is one of the world’s largest maize breeding companies. The deal gives the ACPFG global rights to research outcomes in wheat and barley, while Pioneer will have rights to outcomes in maize and soybean. Since it was founded in 2002 – with funds from the GRDC in conjunction with the Australian Research Council and the South Australian Government – the ACPFG has amassed a world-class team of scientists.
Ground Cover 060 February-March 2006 - North
Ground Cover 058 October-November 2005 - North