The development of new varieties is moving away from government agencies, reports Helen Olsen
The National Variety Trials (NVT) program being introduced this year mirrors the changing face of crop development in Australia, with an increasing number of private plant-breeding companies being established.
About 16 companies have been formed in recent years, reflecting a slow but steady shift away from government agencies.
This is a fundamental change, and development of NVT is in recognition of increasing commercial crop variety development and growers" insistence the assessment of new varieties continues to be transparent and independent.
NVT will replace the previously state-based Crop Variety Testing (CVT). The GRDC"s NVT project leader, Dr Andreas Betzner, says the nationally coordinated system to test new varieties will separate commercial breeding and release trials from grower-gunded variety trials.
[Photo above: Steve Jefferies, CEO of Australian Grain Technologies, below: PlanTech CEO David Messina at his company"s headquarters in Altona: he sees the role of private breeding companies as the more efficient production of improved germplasm for growers]
The emergence of private breeders stems from the establishment of Plant Breeders" Rights in the late-1980s and the ability to collect endpoint royalties. In other words, commercial operators can now make money from marketing their proprietary crop varieties.
Some of th enew companies have been built with direct grower equity, and some - such as Australian Grain Technologies (AGT) Pty Ltd and SunPrime Seeds - also have established industry organisations, such as GRDC, as shareholders.
The chief executive officer of SunPrime Seeds, Kerrie Gleeson, says the company was established in 1995 as a joint venture between Grain Corp and the University of Sydney. In 2001, GRDC became a shareholder in the company.
Mr Gleeson sees the role of private breeding companies as producing improved varieties for growers in a shorter time, in a market that is rapidly changing.
He says that because of the increased competition in the white wheat market from the US and Canada, there is a greater need to diversity to produce grains for different end-users, particularly in South-East Asia.
However, Mr Gleeson believes that the 16 companies set up in recent years may be too many for a market the size of Australia to sustain. He expects to see amalgamation of companies operating in different regions, as a way for seed companies to remain viable when drought or other production constraints hit.
"SunPrime Seeds operates in northern NSW and Queensland, which have been hard-hit by drought in recent seasons, and this has lowered our revenue from end-point royalties," he says. "However, it"s rare for all of Australia"s wheat growing regions to be affected by adverse weather conditions. So being able to test varieties in different regions of Australia would cushion any blow."
Another early private company on the scene is AGT, started in 2002 in partnership with GRDC, the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Government.
Its CEO, Dr Stephen Jefferies, also feels there might be too many breeding organisations to be sustainable over the long term: "I don"t doubt that the increased competition and commercial focus of plant breeding has and will continue to lead to more cost-efficient development of new varieties and should provide growers with more alternatives.
"However, only time will tell if this will result in an overall productivity gain across the industry."
Dr Jefferies sees the NVT as essential to safeguarding growers" interests, although he finds it unfortunate that this is the case. "There will always be the perception, real or not, of bias, which is why NVT testing is necessary," he says.
Dr Jefferies says that similar programs in Europe have demonstrated the advantage of allowing breeding companies to direct their resources towards breeding rather than marketing Ã‚Â– as the success of the variety and breeding organisation is based on the performance of the variety rather than a marketing campaign.
A more recent arrival, PlantTech, produces and markets germplasm for cereals, oilseeds, pulses and temperate pasture. The company was established three years ago through the amalgamation of SGB Australia, Paramount Seeds and Grain Australia Seeds.
PlantTech"s CEO, David Messina, believes the most urgent short-term challenge for private breeding companies is generating enough revenue to fund their breeding programs.
"The income a company generates through endpoint royalties, rather than seed sales, will determine whether that company survives," says Mr Messina.
He sees the role of private breeding companies as the more efficient production of improved germplasm for growers, and thinks that in the future the proportion of germplasm produced by private companies for the Australian market will increase.
"Most of the private companies are new and I believe tend to function more efficiently than the older public organisations, which have greater infrastructure and long-established procedures."
The emergence of private breeding companies is also seeing some entrepreneurs take advantage of overseas research to source germplasm that might suit Australian conditions.
Access Genetics, set up in 2001 by plant breeder Donald Coles, has formed collaborations with the breeding companies Svaloff Weibull, based in Spain, and World Wide Wheat, based in the US.
Mr Coles says the goal of the company is to import grains that have greater ranges of both pathogen resistance and quality profiles, for different regions or emerging markets.
By combining overseas germplasm with Australian varieties, the company hopes to produce crops with improved characteristics suitable for Australian conditions.
Through its links with Svaloff Weibull, Access Genetics has produced the wheat variety SW Odiel, being released in some parts of Australia for the 2005 season.
Access Genetics is owned by Mr Coles and the Nugrain consortium, comprising Nufarm, GrainCorp and Ausbulk (now merged with ABB Grain).
For more information: Dr Stephen Jefferies, 08 8303 7385;
Kerrie Gleeson, 02 6881 621
David Messina, 1800 112 400;
Donald Coles, 03 5797 6281