Segregation the key

Photo of Dr Jim Peacock

Good management of segregation is vital in winning acceptance for GM crops, says a top scientist By Brad Collis

[Photo (left)by Brad Collis: Dr Jim Peacock: "All people have a right to enough good and healthy food."]

The Australian grains industry needs to better promote its efforts to show that well-managed segregated sectors can accommodate GM and non-GM crops, says Dr Jim Peacock, one of the country"s pre-eminent plant geneticists.

Dr Peacock, former chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, argues that segregated systems are nothing new for the industry, pointing to the tight controls on the separation of malting barley.

Dr Peacock has been urging the industry to become far more proactive in its promotion of, and planning for, gene technologies and has lately criticised publicly some mainstream farm organisations for their perceived inaction.

"To ignore this huge change in the understanding of the development and function of plants is just plain crazy," he says. "We"ve got wheats out there in trials that are more efficient at using water, and are yielding 10 per cent higher than our current best varieties in drier environments. They are showing that when a plant has the right genetic make-up, it is able to do so much more than what is currently possible.

"We know we can make the starch, the proteins and the oils better. We know we can beat soil acidity. We know we can have better uptake of phosphorus - and the gene technologies that have contributed to this knowledge also allow plant breeders to work in a rational way. The standard methods of crossing and working with thousands of breeding lines, searching for useful mutations, is more efficient now, providing new tools for conventional breeding programs."

Dr Peacock has been one of the driving forces behind a new company, HRZ Wheat, a consortium comprising CSIRO, the Export Grain Centre (EGC) in Perth and New Zealand Crop and Food Research. EGC was started in 1999 by the GRDC and the Council of Grain Grower Organisations (COGGO), to identify and utilise synergies between research providers and potential investors to meet crop improvement needs in Western Australia.

Dr Peacock says the prime purpose of HRZ Wheat is to breed wheats for Australia"s south-west and south-east high-rainfall zones; regions that have traditionally been dominated by sheep, cattle and dairying.

"One of the reasons for the lack of crop options in these areas is that barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) disease used to knock off any crop grown in wetter areas. But we now have resistant varieties which, because of the high rainfall, will also be high-yielding. This resistance could be greatly enhanced by adding GM resistance to BYDV, securing growers against this threatening disease.

"Added to this, gene technologies give us the opportunity to build further on new end-uses; developing wheats or oilseeds like canola, with high-value properties, such as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (currently only available from the oil of ocean fish). The fish obtain their omega-3 fatty acids by consuming phytoplankton.

"GM technology is needed to incorporate the genes that are responsible for the production of omega-3 in phytoplankton. And to satisfy market demands for different quality requirements, segregation shouldn"t be that difficult to put into practice.

"Some people will still complain about the risk of adventitious presence (AP) in grain, but we have always had AP grain, be it weed seeds or mixed varieties. The principle and practice of imposing limits is already established in international trade, and today we have DNA tools that can detect even the smallest level of variety mix."

With canola the only prospective GM food crop at this point, Dr Peacock says he is hoping the industry follows the example set by the cotton industry in preparing the way for market acceptance before starting production.

"The cotton industry talked to everyone - traders, buyers, local councils, communities, and with researchers - so there was no resistance towards transgenic cotton when it arrived.

"If the canola industry gets busy, it can establish that there is no trade barrier. It can establish the rules and regulations for segregation on a region-by-region basis - and it"s not like anyone has to introduce something new. "For example, where cotton and wheat are now grown you can"t use certain herbicides on wheat because of the risk to cotton crops, so these sorts of local arrangements are already practised."

Dr Peacock has recently addressed the National Farmers Federation executive and the National Press Club in his efforts to raise the level of understanding of the potential that he says gene technologies have.

"And remember it"s not just a commercial thing. If a maize crop in a developing country is wiped out by insects, people starve … they die when we have the technology to prevent such a crop loss.

"One of the driving forces behind the Green Revolution, Professor M.S. Swaminathan, says all people have a right to enough food. I say all people have a right to enough good and healthy food."

For more information: Dr Jim Peacock, 02 6246 4911