Curtin in GM disease fight

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
Curtin University Vice Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry.
Camera IconCurtin University Vice Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry. Credit: Bill Hatto/The West Australian

The lead researcher behind one of the biggest investment deals in Curtin University's history has backed the use of GM technology to fight crop diseases that cost the Australian grains industry $1.5 billion a year.

Professor Richard Oliver will lead the expanded Curtin research team fighting crop disease one molecule at a time under a five-year $100 million deal announced yesterday.

He said Curtin's record of delivering research breakthroughs that counted in the field played a big part in securing investment from the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

The deal between Curtin and the GRDC is the first of its kind with the university contributing about $70 million and the grower-funded corporation a minimum of $30 million.

Curtin said GRDC was the first external investor. Banks and rural businesses are expected to back the research program and associated expansion of agribusiness and agronomy studies.

Professor Oliver is excited about building on Curtin's success in tackling problems such as yellow spot in wheat and powdery mildew in barley through research based around the molecular aspects of grain diseases.

"It adds up to largest single research project in Curtin's history and it has nothing to do with telescopes, oilfields or mines. Surprisingly it is little old biology," he said.

Curtin estimates that up to 20 per cent of crops are lost to disease each year and aims to halve losses from the diseases it is targeting in the next five to 10 years.

Professor Oliver heads a team of young researchers, including Caroline Moffat who spearheads the fight against yellow spot.

The work is based on traditional plant breeding but Professor Oliver is a supporter of GM technology, where appropriate.

He said there was a strong scientific case for using GM technology to tackle schlerotina, the cause of major damage on WA canola crops last season.

"Part of the problem is that though GM solutions are just as difficult . . . it is $20 million more expensive because of what I would say is the over-zealous regulatory framework," Professor Oliver said.

GRDC western region chairman Peter Roberts said the Curtin research had a two-fold benefit for growers - boosting yields and reducing fungicide use costs.

Mr Roberts said the GRDC did not shy away from the use of GM technology amid growing world demand for food.

"It is not something the GRDC focuses on but if it is technology that delivers benefits to growers, we will back it," he said.

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