Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.06.1999

Editorial Information and innovation in the age of biotech

John Lovett

Tractor in field

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including crop plants, are much in the news at the moment. Consumer groups and other critics in parts of Europe, particularly in the UK, have dug in their heels against the release of GMOs and the incorporation of genetically modified product into foodstuffs.

The argument in Europe is for a 'go slow' approach towards releasing GMOs, on the grounds that any unforeseen biological consequences of genetic manipulation may be irreversible and, therefore, 'the precautionary principle' should apply. In Britain, badly scarred by the effects of BSE ('Mad Cow Disease') on the beef industry, the issue has also turned into a political football of public safety and food scares with catchwords such as 'Frankenstein Foods' and 'Monstermash' being widely promoted.

What are Australian graingrowers to make of all this? As we report in 'Gene Scene' in this edition of Ground Cover, Australian canola growers are currently reaping a bonanza from shipping conventionally grown canola to GMO-shy Europe. But can this last? Where should Australian agriculture place itself in the bigger picture of the coming age of biotechnology? Do we, in fact, have much of a choice if Australia's grains industry is to survive and prosper? History would suggest not.

Fifteen years ago activists in the US went to court to stop the spraying of a strawberry field with genetically modified bacteria in an experiment about frost damage. The case was lost and, by 1998, the United States was home to most of the 28 million hectares of genetically modified crops planted worldwide — and that was 10 times the area planted in the previous year. The phenomenal growth in area is expected to continue, with up to 60 million hectares of genetically modified crop predicted in the year 2000.

To emphasise the pace of change, in my lifetime agriculture has moved from reaping the full benefits of mechanisation (which flowed from the Industrial Revolution), through a chemical age of agriculture (post-World War II), to the technological advances of the 'Information Age' (in full flower for barely a decade), to now developing the full potential of biotechnology. And all indications are that the next big advances in economic and social well-being will come from a hightech Age of Biology'.

At the forefront of this 'new age' are the innovations in agricultural biotechnology — the ability to employ living organisms or parts of organisms (usually a single gene) to make or modify new products (crops and crop products). But this is really not so new at all. What we are witnessing is a continuation of a process of crop improvement which extends back at least 10,000 years. (The list of technological change, above, covers only the last 200 years!)

Had agriculture not embraced new technologies — new toolkits — as they became available, crop plants would not have sustained their ability to provide food and fibre products to meet human needs. Many, perhaps most, scientists feel that embracing biotechnology is the way to ensure that crop plants can continue to meet these needs.

Those with a contrary view worry about cross-species or 'foreign' DNA or genes entering the food chain. As one magazine colourfully put it, 'most of us would feel uncomfortable knowing our breakfast cereal contains genes from a rat or scorpion'. Well, perhaps. But the fact is that all genes, whether they come from plants, animals or microbes, are made from the same four building blocks of DNA. The only difference is the order of the building blocks. DNA is DNA is DNA.

(The same magazine claimed that wheat plants were being modified by human genes to make them grow faster — untrue, but symptomatic of the misinformation being fed to the public.)

Humans have used biotechnology to produce foodstuffs for hundreds of years. Cheese, bread, beer and yogurt are all examples in which 'foreign' organisms, in these examples yeasts and bacteria, are introduced to make a new product. Conventional plant-breeding techniques have already greatly modified, mixed and selected the plant ancestors to produce today's grain bounty. And yes, they have crossed species boundaries. Triticale is an example.

The promise of modern biotechnology is to greatly speed up the process of selecting and incorporating desirable traits into new varieties and products.

Australian farmers may well look for high-yielding, drought-resistant cereals, pulses and oilseeds with quality characteristics engineered to suit market needs. Oilseeds, for instance, are being designed to produce oil for everything from margarine to machine lubricant. Farmers can also look forward to grains which are resistant to insect pests and to crops which are impervious to in-crop herbicides.

These developments, however, will not be 'magic bullets'. Management will still play a major role, and a key factor will be to combine the best of this new technology with existing implements in the grower's toolkit. Thus, crop rotations, reduced cultivation, agricultural chemicals, biological control and the like will all continue to play a vital role in crop production. The bottom line advantage for incorporating biotechnology into the toolkit will be savings in cost of production and premium prices for improved quality.

How big a bonus? According to The Australian, it is claimed that Canadian farmers who use Roundup Ready canola are already enjoying a $A58/ha advantage.

In addition to improved production, the environment too could be a major beneficiary if biotechnological gains mean that less land is required to produce the same amount of food, and that crops need less pesticides. In Australia, the evidence from the one genetically modified crop already in broadacre agriculture, BT cotton, is that insecticide inputs can be cut by 50 per cent.

Few would disagree that biotechnologies must be scrupulously developed and regulated to forestall any unforeseen effects on humans and the environment. But that's not new either. Any powerful technology, if misapplied, can be harmful. Any substance given in overdose, even water, can kill. The current debate and consumer concerns are very healthy in so far as they keep scientists and producers honest.

There's only one drawback: scientists and producers are hardly in the debate at present. Anti-GMO organisations daily bombard journalists with information — seemingly to great effect.

To redress the balance, the GRDC has become a founder member of Agrifood Alliance Australia (AAA). AAA also includes representatives of seed producers, AVCARE (the National Association for Crop Protection and Animal Health), the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Biotechnology Association (ABA), the Cooperative Research Centres Association and major private-sector players from Australia and overseas.Conventional plant-breeding techniques have already greatly modified, mixed and selected the plant ancestors to produce today's grain bounty. And yes, they have crossed species boundaries. Triticale is an example.

The promise of modern biotechnology is to greatly speed up the process of selecting and incorporating desirable traits into new varieties and products.

Australian farmers may well look for high-yielding, drought-resistant cereals, pulses and oilseeds with quality characteristics engineered to suit market needs. Oilseeds, for instance, are being designed to produce oil for everything from margarine to machine lubricant. Farmers can also look forward to grains which are resistant to insect pests and to crops which are impervious to in-crop herbicides.

These developments, however, will not be 'magic bullets'. Management will still play a major role, and a key factor will be to combine the best of this new technology with existing implements in the grower's toolkit. Thus, crop rotations, reduced cultivation, agricultural chemicals, biological control and the like will all continue to play a vital role in crop production. The bottom line advantage for incorporating biotechnology into the toolkit will be savings in cost of production and premium prices for improved quality.

AAA's goal is to promote informed public education about biotechnology, complementing the Federal Government's National Biotechnology Strategy announced in the recent Budget. AAA is already working with the media to develop a positive profile for the benefits of biotechnology and will also make submissions to relevant inquiries, which are projected or in train.

A second area requiring priority attention is to firmly establish Australia's position in the international biotechnology race, thereby securing options and flexibility for Australian farmers. A 'doom and gloom' view has been put that Australia simply cannot compete with the multinational giants.

There is an alternative view, based on the excellence of Australia's biotechnologists — acknowledged as being among the world's best — and the fact that the multinationals need access to Australia's adapted crop varieties to deliver their technologies. (See our story p4 about leading-edge barley improvements.)

In other words, although the multinationals hold patents over key technology and genes, Australia holds bargaining chips. This opens the door to joint ventures between companies holding key pieces of technology and Australia's scientific community and industry bodies.

In this context, the GRDC, with AWB Ltd and CSIRO Plant Industry, has taken an important initiative with Graingene, a strategic research alliance to combine strengths in plant biological research with R&D management, commercial and marketing skills.

Graingene is geared to do business worldwide.

Regular readers of Ground Cover will have recognised that this editorial is unusually long! This is a reflection of the importance of the biotechnology debate to agriculture's future. The history of crop improvement is also long. Its achievements are impressive. The future of crop improvement is no less bright.

To realise its promise means that growers will continue to show their willingness to adopt and deploy new technologies; that new ways of doing business, through strategic national and international alliances, will be developed — and that all Australians become comfortable with the safety and merits of these exciting new developments.

Comic Stripe