John Harvey – Managing director, GRDC
Over the past decade we have seen a fundamental shift in the organisational structures that underpin the research that keeps our crop varieties a step ahead of evolving biological and climatic challenges.
In particular, we have seen much of the traditional plant-breeding role of state agriculture departments replaced by private companies. As with any changes to long-held roles and expectations, the transition from public to private sector plant breeding came with a few early anxieties for some growers, but 10 years on we are seeing real strength and value emerging from the transition.
Much of today’s plant breeding in the grains sector involves local companies with global partnerships and this has given Australian plant breeders direct access to advanced technologies, knowledge, skills and a much more expansive genetic resource.
This investment by international interests in the future of the Australian grains industry also represents a critical injection of capital into the plant breeding on which our industry stands.
Central to all of this change is ensuring that the delivery of new crop varieties, and allied research, directly benefits growers. This is where the GRDC has played, and continues to play, a key role; as an influential partner in some of the new ventures and also through the creation and monitoring of the National Variety Trials, which imposes an objective assessment on all new varieties intended for commercial release.
The GRDC’s primary focus is the interests of Australian growers, which is why we have retained a hands-on presence where required, and why we are also excited by new varieties entering the market. There are some striking examples of what GRDC-supported research can achieve in lifting grains productivity and profitability in the facing of unceasing agronomic challenges.
Among new high-performing wheat varieties, for instance, are Mace and LongReach Scout for Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria, and Suntop and LongReach Spitfire for the north. All come from cutting-edge varietal development that has drawn on the new, extended plant breeding resources.
Mace and Suntop were bred by Australian Grain Technologies (a company in which the GRDC is a partner) and LongReach Scout and LongReach Spitfire both come from LongReach, the first fully private wheat-breeding company started in Australia in 2002. Since then LongReach has released 17 lines for the Australian market – a rapid output by any standards – reflecting the access that the company’s Australian breeders have to the breeding and evaluation technologies of the company’s international parents Advanta (through Pacific Seeds) and Syngenta.
This achievement also supports the GRDC’s push for getting research outcomes into growers’ hands as quickly as possible.
The above are just a few examples, and there are similar advances being made in other crops, such as a superior new malting barley, Bass, from InterGrain, a plant-breeding collaboration between the GRDC, the WA Government (including the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA), and international companies Monsanto and Syngenta.
Looking ahead, I can see even greater advances through such ventures; another being the recently launched Arista program that brings together the GRDC, CSIRO and Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients. This collaboration will deliver new high-amylose wheat varieties developed by CSIRO and Limagrain, and build commercial relationships to take products through to the market.
Such commercial threads that tie breeding to the market means that new varieties must perform, especially for the grower. Grower profitability is the ultimate test of a variety’s value and is the measure that today’s private sector breeders must meet.
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