The Gene Scene
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is a joint initiative of Ausbiotech, CropLife Australia, the GRDC and the National Farmers’ Federation. ABCA has been established to help shape a new era for Australian agriculture by encouraging informed debate on biotechnology through the dissemination of credible, balanced, science-based information. Through the creation and sharing of research and knowledge, ABCA’s work aims to place biotechnology and gene technology into context as another invaluable innovation for Australian agriculture, ensuring that science guides public policy for the future of farming.
Experiences with GM canola
East-coast grain growers have reported positive experiences growing GM canola and cited effective weed control as the primary reason for including GM varieties in their cropping programs. This was the finding of a survey of more than 1300 growers funded by the GRDC and BCG.
Over a three-year period the survey examined adoption patterns, agronomic, economic and environmental effects, and changes in attitude to concerns about the co-existence of GM and non-GM canola production systems.
The survey showed that growers who grew GM canola were able to achieve the following benefits: more effective weed control, reduced overall pesticide use and herbicide resistance risks, improved farming practices (such as enhanced conservation tillage) and a reduced environmental footprint compared with triazine-tolerant canola.
Other key findings of the survey included: reports of no significant yield difference between GM and non-GM canola; the average cost of weed control using GM herbicide-tolerant canola was higher than non-GM canola weed control programs; and GM canola growers were more likely to use conservation tillage than their non-GM counterparts.
A major barrier to adoption of GM canola gleaned from the survey was the perceived lack of economic value from the Roundup Ready® canola technology package compared with the established economic value of alternative non-GM weed-control options.
The majority of GM canola and non-GM canola growers surveyed also reported no negative effects in relation to the coexistence of different production methods in their farming operations, and both GM and non-GM growers indicated they would increase their adoption of GM canola in the future.
A survey of Western Australian grain growers’ experiences with GM canola is underway.
A research review published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology has concluded that the increasing demand for the healthy long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in human diets means that land-based sources, including microalgae and GM plants, must be considered.
Authors of the University of Queensland review have said that GM plants may play an important role in future production of these long-chain fatty acids currently sourced from global fish stocks.
In Australia, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has approved field trials of canola genetically modified to produce long-chain omega-3 oils. Licensing approves these field trials for the next five years, and while the GM canola involved in the trials is not expected to enter the human food or animal feed supply, some GM material may be used for small-scale experimental animal feeding studies.
Similarly, in the UK, field trials have been approved for Camelina sativa plants (also known as false flax) genetically modified to produce omega-3 oils. This field trial is part of a Rothamsted Research strategic program of research designing seeds for nutrition and health. The researchers believe that these plants may provide an alternative source of omega-3 oil for the aquaculture industry, which is seeking new ways to maintain and increase its sustainability.
Low-level GM presence
The Australian Government is set to develop a framework for managing the potential ‘low-level’ presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This framework is expected to involve the development of possible scenarios, including discussion of key issues, relevant stakeholders and potential management activities, and identify key areas where decisions, actions or responses may be required.
This follows the recent release of a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that found increased production of GM crops around the globe had led to a higher number of low levels of GMOs being detected in traded food and feed.
The report indicated that as a consequence of this, there were trade disruptions between countries, with shipments of grain, cereal and other crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the country of origin.
There is no international agreement defining or quantifying low-level GM content and, as a result, interpretation varies from country to country. In most countries, there are no generally applicable low-level GMO policies, legislation or regulations in place. The FAO report forms the basis of future discussions on the issue of low-level GM content and efforts to minimise the impact on the global food and feed trade.
New ag biotech resource
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia launched a new agbiotech resource in March. The booklet, titled The Official Australian Reference Guide to Agricultural Biotechnology and GM Crops, provides information about GM crops based on scientific evidence.
Topics covered include the science, performance, safety and regulation of GM crops, as well as products in the pipeline, plus commercial and market realities. The guide also gives a voice to growers who farm GM crops and answers common questions regarding stockfeed, organisations involved in GM crop research, and food safety.
GRDC Project Code GOG00008