GM moves put focus on segregation

By Eammon Conaghan

Federal authorisation for the commercial release of GM canola through the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has the industry priming itself for the possible introduction of GM crops. Although State Government moratoriums prohibit the commercial production of GM canola across Australia, the OGTR’s environmental tick of approval brings it a step closer to Australian paddocks.

However, one burning question is how it would affect sales to markets preferring non-GM produce. While there seems to be endless conjecture about whether or not Australia’s markets have any preference at all, research continues on the assumption that some markets, at least, will demand non-GM produce. This would require handling systems able to separate GM and conventional canola during the hectic harvest schedule and throughout the supply chain.

WA grain handler CBH is now working with Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Australia and the WA Department of Agriculture to see if segregation can be guaranteed.

In 2002 Monsanto commercially released the conventional canola variety ‘ATR-EyreVariety protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994’, which provided an opportunity to test the movement of a novel canola variety through the supply chain.

“By segregating it as though it was a GM grain, we could identify potential risk points in the supply chain and develop testing regimes that gave confidence in the identity preservation process,” CBH crop production specialist, Mr Peter Nelson, explains.

Ten Geraldton region growers participated in the trial. They had to clean harvesting equipment thoroughly, always fill trucks via chaser or field bins and collect samples of the first and last residues to pass through all equipment during the transfer of grain.

Residue samples were submitted with the loads to the Geraldton receival bins. Deliveries containing ATR-EyreVariety protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994 canola, even when mixed in small proportions with other canola varieties, were fed into a segregated supply.

“The ATR-EyreVariety protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994 canola was railed to the Metro Grains Centre and then trucked to the Riverland Oilseed Processors,” says Mr Nelson. “Samples were taken each time the canola was moved into or out of a vessel.”

As one CBH operator said, diminutive canola grains are “like water” and can leak through a small hole in the chute or through loose valves, which makes its isolation a particular challenge.

So how do handlers contain elusive canola, with its reluctance to be an inmate of a closed loop handling system? Enter Saturn Biotech, a molecular research company based at the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre.

It has developed molecular gate-keeping technologies which use DNA fingerprinting and mass spectroscopy to police any fugitive grain trickling into the mainstream handling system.

“These technologies have been used to differentiate varieties of wheat, barley, oats, lupin and potato in the past and we are now developing a diagnostic tool to identify DNA markers that can distinguish between ATR-EyreVariety protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994 and other canola varieties,” Saturn Biotech Executive Director, Mr Mark Pitts says.

Once the technology is ready, CBH can test all the samples collected during the 2002 trials and analyse how well separation was maintained.

Even if GM never enters Australia’s handling system, the definitive segregation of crops for different end uses, such as industrial and food products, is still expected to become a necessity.

For more information:
Peter Nelson, CBH, 08 9454 0359 Mark Pitts, Saturn Biotech, 0419 700 493

Variety protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994 Varieties displaying this symbol beside them are protected under the Plant Breeders Rights Act 1994.