Productivity and research staples

The Gene Scene

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision making about, gene technology. The organisation is supported by a number of agricultural sectors and organisations all working to ensure the Australian farming sector can appropriately access and adopt this technology for the benefit of Australian agriculture.

Productivity Commission inquires into agriculture

Image of Dr Alex Johnson

Dr Alex Johnson from the University of Melbourne examines biofortified plants in trial plots.

PHOTO: University of Melbourne

Last year, the Productivity Commission was tasked with undertaking an inquiry into the regulation of agriculture.

In July, the commission released its draft report, which made preliminary recommendations, including identifying areas of regulation that are unnecessarily burdensome, complex or redundant, and priority areas for regulatory reform. Of relevance to agricultural biotechnology, the commission made the following findings and recommendations:

  • that there is no economic or health and safety justification for banning the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) organisms; the Commission concluded that there is no demonstrated market failure regarding the co-existence of GM and non-GM production systems, and therefore state and territory governments should not have the ability to impose moratoria;
  • that the New South Wales, South Australian, Western Australian, Tasmanian and Australian Capital Territory governments should repeal their legislation that puts in place moratoria on the commercial cultivation of GM crops;
  • that the scope and extent of regulation should be reduced when developments in science are sufficient to abate uncertainties about the safety of new technologies;
  • that the case for mandatory labelling of GM foods is weak;  
  • that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) should remove the requirement in the Food Standards Code to label GM foods; and
  • that it is difficult to justify a mandatory labelling regime on the basis of consumer concerns, given that approved GM foods have been assessed by regulators to be as safe as conventional foods.

The final report and recommendations and government response are expected before the end of this year.

Biofortified rice breakthrough

Scientists from the University of Melbourne have created a GM rice variety that produces grain with significantly boosted levels of iron and zinc through a process called biofortification.

The researchers identified a rice gene which, when switched on, increases the amount of iron the plant takes up from the soil and transports to the grain. Usually, this gene is activated only when the plant itself is short of iron, so the scientists have tricked the plant into thinking it is short of iron all the time. This modification also increased the zinc levels in the grain.

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The researchers targeted a rice variety known as IR 64, because it is widely grown in Asia where rice is a staple food for billions of people.

The problem with rice is that it has little nutritional value, with many people in developing countries who rely on rice as a staple food effectively starved of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and pro-vitamin A, in what nutritionists call “hidden hunger”.

Iron deficiency, known as anaemia, is estimated to affect more than two billion people according to the World Health Organization, with zinc deficiency affecting similar numbers. Health problems such as weakness, lethargy, pregnancy complications, stunted growth and impaired immune function can be caused by these dietary deficiencies.

In field trials the GM variety has boosted iron levels to 13 parts per million (ppm), up from conventional rice levels of 2 to 5ppm, and zinc levels boosted to 45ppm, up from the range of 16 to 28ppm seen in non-GM rice.

“We have proven our concept in a major variety of rice, and we are now ready to move this into a developing country,” says research leader Dr Alex Johnson, a University of Melbourne plant geneticist.

“Hidden hunger isn’t a hypothetical problem, it is a real problem, and biofortification is a real solution. I’ve not met anyone who is against that,” Dr Johnson says.

Dr Johnson and his colleagues are now aiming to introduce the iron and zinc biofortified rice into Bangladesh, a rice-producing country with high levels of iron deficiency in the population, and a track record of utilising GM crops (an insect-resistant eggplant already cultivated in the country).

Look to deserts for future crops: researcher

Researchers at Murdoch University are looking to Australia’s desert plants to develop tougher crops to feed a growing population in a hotter, drier world.

“Although the deserts would seem to be obvious places to look for novel strategies to protect crops living under hotter, drier conditions, this is not a well-researched area,” says Dr Steve Wylie, senior research associate at Murdoch University, writing for The Conversation.

The best-case scenario is that stress-tolerance strategies that evolved in desert plants can be applied to crops.

Dr Wylie says Australia’s flora and fauna are potentially an innovation goldmine, and he notes that scientists from other countries are already collecting large numbers of Australian desert plants and shipping them overseas for research.


More information:

Australian Biotechnology Council of Australia

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