Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 052 October-November 2004 - North
FORUM: GENE TECHNOLOGY OCTOBER 2004 7 the market, but it is a question of when. "The people we deal with are passionately in favour of GM salt-tolerant wheat," he says. "When Monsanto announced that it was not pursuing its plans to launch Roundup Ready® GM wheat, our phones ran hot with farmers asking if we were giving up on our salt-tolerant wheat." Grain Biotech's chief scientist Dr Doug Chamberlain is placing his hope in the fact that when the State Government adopted a moratorium on commercial GM crops in WA, it said it would continue to allow small field trials approved by the OGTR. Other states have offered similar assurances, but the moratoriums have shaken investor confidence -- not just in the future of GM crops but in the very future of the agbiotech industry. Agbiotech researchers, entrepreneurs and investors are still trying to understand how anti-GM activists could pressure five state governments to second-guess the OGTR. Queensland has been the only State to accept the wealth of scientific evidence that GM crops pose no special threat to human health, and that GM canola would deliver significant economic benefits to Australia's grains industry. Under complementary Federal-State legislation, the states can only reject OGTR- approved GM crops if they have concerns about economic damage to existing agricultural industries. Yet, in imposing their moratoriums, both Victoria and WA both acted contrary to the advice of their own expert consultants who reported that GM canola posed no threat to their agricultural exports. The moratoriums, and political stance taken by state governments are now only part of the problem facing Australian companies like Grain Biotech that are trying to commercialise new GM crops -- particularly wheat. Nearly two decades of lobbying by anti- GM activists, combined with inactivity by industry, have given Australia the world's most stringent GM regulatory system. The costs of compliance are proportionately steep, making the path to market tortuous and prohibitively expensive. People have targeted companies like Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, convinced they are seeking to dominate global food production. But in their pursuit of the multinationals they have actually cemented their dominance of the market for GM commodity crops. Small, independent companies will not be able to afford the steep costs of regulatory compliance. Dr Fox says the company has a good relationship with the OGTR, but the agency has yet to make its cost-recovery plans public. He fears it could run into the millions. Because wheat is a commodity crop, and seed is cheap, Grain Biotech could have problems recovering its compliance costs through sales of a proprietary GM wheat. Even then, as recent events have made clear, compliance does not guarantee a commercial outcome as long as the states have the power to second-guess the OGTR. "The problem is that the whole issue has been subverted for political expediency," he says. "I really think it's such a serious problem that it has to be tackled at the national level. "We need a positive and creative national approach, that won't be up-ended by the states." Meantime, Grain Biotech is involved in "serious talks" with the International Wheat and Maize Breeding Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico. "They're very interested in salinity tolerance, because they work in a lot of developing countries that are ecologically very similar to Australia," says Dr Fox. "We believe we could have a major influence on the salinity problem in Middle Eastern countries, where the regulatory obstacles to getting a product into commercial production are less onerous." Another Australian GM wheat developer already has an experimental, highly drought-tolerant wheat in field trials at CIMMYT. CIMMYT is an international partner in the Melbourne-based Cooperative Research Centre for Molecular Plant Breeding. Scientists at the Centre actually developed the drought-tolerant wheat, but whatever its allure to Australia's dryland wheat farmers, Australia's anti-GM climate and regulatory system have ensured it will not be the first- choice location for early field trials. South-eastern Australia's wheat belt has experienced a prolonged dry phase that has seen rainfall decline by 20 percent since the late 1970s. CSIRO climatologists say there is a strong likelihood of another 20 percent decline by 2030. Consequently, researchers have begun field- testing another transgenic wheat that exhibits phenomenal resistance to water stress. South-east Queensland wheat growers have a different type of water-stress problem. They rely on stored soil moisture from summer rainfall, and for every day they delay sowing, they incur a yield penalty of about one percent from stress as summer temperatures rise. But sowing too early risks complete crop loss if late frosts occur during flowering in August-September. Associate Professor Grant Daggard's research team at the Centre for Rural and Environmental Biotechnology at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, has developed a GM wheat carrying a frost-tolerance gene that should protect the plant during flowering. The GRDC-sponsored project aims to demonstrate proof of concept. Associate Professor Daggard says the gene is currently expressed throughout the plant, but in a commercial version, it may be possible to restrict expression to the floral organs. "While there's no market for GM wheat at present it's an important investment in terms of the IP, and having the germplasm ready to deploy later down the track," he says. This could be important if, or when, consumers become more aware of potential health benefits that could come from GM crops. 'Nutraceutical' grain crops that will deliver consumers direct health benefits are already in the research pipeline in Australia. In Perth, Grain Biotech has previewed such possibilities with a novelty GM wheat containing the gene for resveratrol, the anti- oxidant in red wine that keeps the French in robust health on the type of fat-saturated diet that takes other Westerners to a premature grave. However, Grain Biotech has no commercial ambitions for the novelty bread wheat. Paul Fox observes that most consumers will prefer to get their resveratrol poured, not sliced. But at CSIRO Plant Industries in Canberra, Dr Allan Green's team is using gene technology to develop an oilseed crop high in healthy long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. In the early 1990s, Dr Green developed a mutant flax, the source of linseed oil, creating a new polyunsaturated oilseed crop, LinolaTM, now a popular crop in cool-climate Canada. Dr Green says some of today's major oilseed crops, such as canola and soybean, already contain low levels of the medium- chain omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. But none contain the longer-chain omega- 3 fatty acids, such as eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) or docosahexanoic acid (DHA), which are currently obtained only from fish oils. These fatty acids are being increasingly shown to have a wide variety of health benefits. With world fish stocks at a low ebb, fish oil is an unsustainable source of DHA, and the cost of adding fish oil to foods like omega-3 breads is likely to rise. Dr Green's group is part of a CSIRO Food Futures Flagship project to develop a gene- technology package that could be installed in any oilseed crop to re-program its fatty acid- synthesis machinery to produce DHA. "Since the fish derive the oil from algae we're finding the genes that are responsible for synthesis of DHA in lower marine plants, such as microalgae, and transferring them to higher plants, such as oilseed crops," Dr Green says. Further development is required to get DHA synthesized in plants at commercially viable levels, but Dr Green says the technology represents a "very valuable long-term opportunity". "We haven't decided on the target crop yet,'" he says. "The best technical plant platform in which to make DHA still needs to be determined -- and then there's also the issue of which oilseed is best suited for development as an identity preserved crop in our agricultural systems." Dr Green believes consumers will welcome a DHA-enriched GM oilseed crop if they are well-informed about its health benefits. Graeme O'Neill is a freelance science writer specialising in biotechnology. Nearly two decades of lobbying by anti-GM activists have given Australia the world's most stringent GM regulatory system, and the costs of compliance are proportionately steep. Seeing for themselves: growers and other grain industry professionals learning how to extract plant DNA in a hands- on gene technology workshop at CSIRO Discovery Centre, Canberra. Catching the future: CSIRO's Dr Allan Green.
Ground Cover 053 December-January 2005 - North
Ground Cover 051 August-September 2004 - North