Seven breeding lines of chickpeas highly resistant to the Australian strain of Ascochyta blight are on their way to the marketplace, thanks to the pulse breeding team at the Victorian Institute for Dryland Agriculture (VIDA).
In the past several years, the disease has virtually stopped a growing chickpea industry in its tracks.
Led by Trevor Bretag, the VIDA team screened more than 1,400 chickpea lines. They've isolated seven that are highly resistant to the disease and more than 200 that are only moderately susceptible.
Dr Bretag says it's possible that some of the resistant lines might be released in the near future without further crossing. This would depend on them meeting the yield and quality demands of Australia's growers and customers. If they don't measure up they'll be used in a jack-crossing program to impart their resistance to other more agronomically suitable lines.
Pulse trader for AWB Ltd Phillip McEvoy hailed the VIDA announcement as "great news for the industry. We'll be shipping the last of the Lasseter variety this month and that's a real shame," he said. "We'd won great acceptance for this variety and could have sold thousands and thousands of tonnes had it not been for Ascochyta.
"I certainly hope that the breeders concentrate on what the buyers want. Lasseter, midway in size between a Kabuli and a desi-type chickpea, has proved very popular. If we could get resistance to Ascochyta in that type of chickpea it would be very good news. We were able to get a premium of $60-$70/t over standard chickpeas for Lasseter, and breeders should certainly keep that in mind."
Darling Downs agronomist Mike Lucy says VIDA's identification of Ascochyta-resistant chickpea lines is a major step in the right direction, with robust resistance a much better option than the fungicide spray programs widely adopted in northern NSW and Queensland last year.
"There's no doubt resistance to Ascochyta is going to be central to the development of the chickpea industry," Mr Lucy says. He said no-one really likes having to carry out a program of fungicide spraying, although at the moment that is the main management option, along with seed treatment.
Mr Lucy, a pulse specialist with QDPI's Farming Systems Institute in Pittsworth, says experience in India and Pakistan indicates Ascochyta can break down resistances, so the challenge for breeders will be ongoing.
Mr Lucy says most growers know now that there is enough Ascochyta inoculum around paddocks to devastate the industry in any combination of wet season and poor management.
The industry expects a significant increase - certainly 50 per cent and perhaps 100 per cent - on last year's northern chickpea crop.
Mr McEvoy said that the Canadians were looking to increase the area under chickpeas but had also experienced disease problems last year, so the market was there for developing.
While Ascochyta blight can be controlled, it means constant vigilance, an anticipation of the onset of an outbreak and a strategic fungicide application program. Despite the usually high potential returns, all this has made the crop unattractive to any but the most determined growers.
The VIDA work promises to rekindle interest in the industry and provide growers with a viable alternative cropping option.
The seeds were imported from India and Syria and come as a result of cooperation with two international agricultural research institutes. To date, testing for resistance to Ascochyta blight has been confined to the glasshouse and to observation plots but this will be extended to full-scale field trials involving some 14 lines this season.
Fast-track by biotechnology
In addition, Dr Bretag says that state-of-the-art technology, such as molecular fingerprinting, will be used to accelerate the breeding process and to make certain that the imparted resistance is long-lasting.
He says that the breakthrough justifies the growers' and the Federal Government's investment in the chickpea breeding program through the GRDC.
The AWB's Phillip McEvoy also offered a hot tip for northern growers of chickpeas this season. "Queensland has an advantage if it can produce an early crop to meet the requirements of Ramadan," he said. "That means a November delivery date which is very early but the buyers want the peas at festival time and that's when the premiums are available."
Program 2.4.2 Contact: Dr Trevor Bretag 03 5362 2118