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[genet-news] SCIENCE & POLICY: Australian field trials of GM projects yield ’promising’ results

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: The Age, Australia

AUTHOR: Philip Hopkins


DATE:   30.03.2009

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PRELIMINARY trials in Victoria show that genetically modified wheat could lift production yields by about 20 per cent and GM pastures could economically boost the dairy, beef and wool industries.

Molecular Plant Breeding CRC chief executive Glenn Tong said trials of its drought-tolerant wheat in 2007 and last year were ?very promising? ? with yields of the GM wheat up to 20 per cent higher than non-GM wheat under drought stress.

?We have to be very cautious about the interpretation of these preliminary results and bear in mind that there are many field trials to come,? Dr Tong said.

Similarly, he said CRC modelling indicated dairy cows eating GM varieties of perennial ryegrass could produce 20 per cent more milk.

Dr Tong showed the preliminary results of the various trials and economic impact modelling to the annual conference of the Victorian Farmers? Federation Grains Council last week.

Molecular Plant Breeding CRC, based at Bundoora in northern Melbourne, is conducting the $28 million, seven-year GM drought-tolerant wheat project in partnership with BASF Plant Science, a plant biotechnology subsidiary of German chemical giant BASF.

The commercial partner for the GM grass trials is New Zealand agricultural company PGG Wrightson, with the overall project valued at $36 million.

Dr Tong said yield calculations in the modelling were based on Australian Bureau of Resource Economics yield data from the past 38 years.

About half the years analysed were drought-stressed in some way. ?If a 20-25 per cent increase in yield could be achieved for the drought-stressed years, that translates at the farmgate to a $15 to $115-per-hectare gross benefit to the farmer,? he said.

The GM drought-tolerant wheat is not expected to be released to the market for at least another eight years. ?There will be another four or five years of trials,? Dr Tong said, followed by three or four years to gain regulatory approval, for example from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator in Australia and similar authorities overseas.

Dr Tong said it was crucial to produce more wheat to feed the world?s growing population. Annual wheat productivity was growing by 1.1 per cent globally, but annual demand was growing by 1.7 per cent. ?If this continues, we will have a serious shortage of a staple crop,? he said.

The threat of more frequent droughts from any climate change made the development of a drought-tolerant GM wheat crucial. Most multinationals have given up research into GM wheat, concentrating instead on corn and soy, he said.

Molecular Plant Breeding CRC, which receives funding from the federal and state governments and commercial partners, has a team of 25 on the GM wheat project. Dr Tong said it would probably cost BASF about $100 million to take the experimental products through regulatory approvals in the key markets.

The CRC also has several GM trials in Victoria of perennial ryegrass. One is perennial ryegrass engineered to produce less lignin and more fructan.

Dr Tong said this made the ryegrass more digestible and more energy-rich, increasing the amount of energy that animals could extract from the grass. This made the animals ? whether dairy or beef cattle, or sheep ? more productive.

?Improving the quality of the feedstock will create an output that is bigger in quantity and better in quality,? he said.

In dairy cows, that meant more milk that was higher in quality. Dr Tong said preliminary estimates were that this could translate to an extra $500 income a year from the average cow, just for the fructan technology. The estimated 20 per cent extra energy created by the GM ryegrass was based on conservative modelling, he said. Lignin and other technologies under development would deliver extra economic benefits.

Dr Tong said a big side-benefit could come from animals producing less methane. ?If the grass is more digestible, this could translate to more efficient fermentation, which in turn could translate to less methane being produced,? he said. ?But this hypothesis needs to be tested in animal trials in the future.?

Dr Tong said he estimated the ryegrass project should create a commercial product by about 2015.

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: Truth About Trade & Technology, USA

AUTHOR: Allan Skogen


DATE:   27.03.2009

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Al Skogen produces wheat, corn and soybeans, using minimum and no-till production practices, on a diverse grain family farm in east central North Dakota. Mr. Skogen is chairman of Growers for Biotechnology, participated in the 2008 Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

The poet T.S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he called April ?the cruelest month.?

We?re approaching the critical time of year when wheat farmers in the Upper Great Plains will first get an idea what the crop potential may be. If the weather lets us plant in mid-April, we?ll be in luck. If we can?t start until the middle of May--because we?ve suffered through a cruel April, due to cold wet soils--we?ll be in trouble. Our yields could drop by as much as 40 percent.

One month makes a huge difference in yield potential, and we?re completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. We can put seeds in the ground while there?s still snow in the ditches, but seeds will lay there for weeks without progress. While seeds will slowly sprout in soils as cool as 40 to 45 degrees, it?s not until the soil temps approach 60 degrees and wheat plants really begin to feel the warmth of spring that plants will rapidly grow and flourish.

What if modern science was to give us an edge?

We already have the know-how. Biotechnology has transformed agriculture for farmers who grow soybeans, corn, and cotton. Earlier this year, they passed a significant milestone: 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops planted around the world since commercialization began 13 years ago. For these farmers, GM crops are not a cutting-edge fantasy but the new reality of conventional agriculture.

Wheat farmers, however, are left out in the cold, both literally and figuratively. We not only need to shake off the chill of January, February, and March, but we also want to take full advantage of the Gene Revolution--something that we?ve been blocked from doing, thanks to a toxic mix of political confusion and scientific illiteracy.

Farmers who plant biotech crops have enjoyed large increases in yield. Some seed companies are even talking about new technologies doubling the yields of these crops over the next two decades.

Where?s wheat? Twenty years behind and counting. Years ago, several players in the wheat industry grew nervous about biotechnology, primarily spooked by misguided fears about consumer acceptance in foreign countries. Consequently, producers and consumers alike are paying a steep price. While the rest of the planet started to embrace biotechnology, wheat retreated. Now, while many years behind other major crops, the wheat industry is uniting and strategically moving forward toward enhancing wheat through biotechnology.

Cold-tolerant wheat, possibly obtained through genetic modification, would provide a big boost. Crops able survive in slightly colder temperatures--even by just a few degrees--would help us increase our output. That would lead to earlier harvests, better yields, lower food prices and greater global food supplies. Each point takes on more importance when you consider the global relevance of wheat as a staple food crop for billions.

Even more important is drought tolerance. Wheat grows in dry climates, and plants that make efficient use of water perform the best. The goal is more production per unit of available water. If biotech wheat is ever commercialized, drought tolerance could possibly become the first available trait because the science behind it is already proven and soon available in other crops.

Biotechnology also promises a solution to an emerging problem in Africa and parts of Asia, where a deadly fungus called stem rust poses a huge threat to small-acreage farmers and their staple crop. Some diseases depress yields. This new stem rust is different--it wipes out whole harvests. ?It has immense destructive potential,? said Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, in a recent interview.

The last stem rust epidemic occurred half a century ago. Scientists thought they had defeated it permanently through better breeding. But now the disease is back, in a virulent new form that could imperil the world?s food supply. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico has warned of ?a pending disaster in global agriculture.?

Fungicide sprays offer marginal relief, but not a cure. We need to defeat this disease. Some new discoveries indicate that genes that convey resistance to this rust exist today however, we need all the scientific tools available to us ? and that includes biotechnology to defeat this threat. Unfortunately, the answers to this problem lie not merely a season or two away, but years in the future. That?s why the work to annihilate it for another half-century or longer must begin immediately.

T.S. Eliot?s famous line about April appears in a poem called ?The Waste Land.? If we don?t take advantage of biotechnology, wheat farmers will have to endure not only more cruel Aprils, but brutal years of mediocrity as fertile wheat lands are deprived of their potential while other crops flourish with the biotech advantage.



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