New wheats program breed locally, think globally

John Lovett

The most recent ABARE survey of the industry delivered a report that graingrowers can rightly be proud of: productivity has grown at 3.6 per cent a year for over a decade. Under difficult international marketing conditions, this is a considerable achievement.

But in order for the Australian grains industry to keep this forward momentum, research and development must deliver even more. And deliver it in a way that is efficient, global and at the cutting edge of science. So, we should start with wheat, our most important crop.

We need better coordination to focus the national wheat-breeding effort, backed by regional testing, ensuring wider choice of competitive varieties for growers at the local level.

By comparison, the current system is fragmented and hobbles our long-term market potential, despite excellent varietal results in the past decade in terms of wheat quality and yield.

After discussions with grains industry leaders at state and national level, the GRDC is excited to present a new model for wheat breeding. We have invited the breeding sector to initiate three competing companies to lead Australian wheat breeding. Each will be a publicplus-private sector research alliance. Each will breed locally in Australia's regions but test its products nationally and globally.

Supporting the new effort will be GRDC investments over the next decade worth up to $100 million, with further investments of at least $100 million in biotechnology, market intelligence-gathering and associated research and development for the broader farming system.

The time has come to strategically apply the world's leading breeding technologies, which the GRDC and its partners have been accessing within Australia and across the world in recent years.

The aim will be to fast-track the development of higher-quality, sturdier new wheats, which are being demanded by the marketplace and by growers.

The challenge will be to manage this work in a new research environment, unlike any that we have had in Australia to date. The new research environment will demand clarity on intellectual property ownership, commercial returns to investors and partners in breeding programs, and access to the world's best germplasm and the fastest breeding tools.

The goals that will keep us internationally competitive on wheat are:

  • improve the rate of genetic gain in wheat yield and quality attributes
  • decrease the time to develop new varieties
  • make the best varieties available nationally and, perhaps, internationally
  • integrate wheat breeding programs to reduce costs, realise economies of scale and focus on core wheat breeding business, and
  • offer growers throughout Australia every possible choice.

If you turn to the Ground Cover Forum on p23 of this issue, international wheat-breeding authority Dr John Hamblin, now of the Export Grains Centre in Perth, has prepared an interesting insight into the market pressures on Australian wheat growers and the strengths and weaknesses of our nation's current breeding system. He proposes that change is essential to realise the goals and objectives discussed above.