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Binned: Premier sidelines GM wheat

Kate Matthews and Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Commercial production of genetically modified wheat appears to be off the table for WA growers, after Premier Colin Barnett refused to back it.

Mr Barnett told Parliament on Tuesday he supported GM canola and cotton, but not GM wheat.

“I support science and I support research programs, but this Government has not made any decision to support GM wheat, and I do not expect we will,” he said.

Following a visit to Japan earlier this month, Mr Barnett said: “We are not contemplating GM wheat and I did note Japanese consumers would not support GM wheat.”

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Mr Barnett’s stance on GM wheat is out of line with funding decisions already made.

Agriculture Minister Terry Redman has repeatedly supported GM technology, in the belief that it is part of the State’s future.

Just last year, the Government announced $9 million in funding for New Genes for New Environments centres in Katanning and Merredin to evaluate GM varieties of canola, wheat, barley and lupins.

A fifth of cereal breeding company InterGrain was also sold to GM giant Monsanto last year.

Monsanto said at the time it would give InterGrain access to biotechnology traits for wheat that should be introduced in the next decade.

An InterGrain spokesman said the plant breeder was not working on GM wheat because available genetic material was still at least a year away.

After the opening rains this season, trials of GM wheat and barley are expected to be planted in WA.

The trials have prompted Labor’s agriculture spokesman, Mick Murray, and Greenpeace to reiterate warnings of the risks to export markets and premiums for non-GM crops if contamination occurs.

The trials were approved last year by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) but failed to get off the ground when the planting window closed.

CSIRO will trial 11 lines of GM wheat and three lines of GM barley at the gene centre in Merredin, looking at growth and yield characteristics in field conditions.

A CSIRO spokesman said the trial would be up to a hectare in size and did not contain GM wheats or barleys that would be used commercially.

“Any commercialisation of plants being trialled by CSIRO at the site will take several years and will involve extensive additional regulatory approvals and trials,” he said.

“Public statements by biotech companies and information available globally has indicated no GM wheat commercialisation is likely within at least the next five years in WA.”

Andrew Jacobs, a research fellow from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), is in discussions with Mr Redman to conduct a small-scale research trial at Corrigin.

It will be similar to ACPFG’s trial in South Australia last year when 38 transgenic wheat lines and 25 transgenic barley lines were tested.

The lines have been genetically modified to enhance nutrient utilisation and abiotic stress tolerance to drought and salinity.

“The WA site is interesting because it’s affected by salinity and the SA site is devoid of all abiotic stresses,” Dr Jacobs said.

It will allow researchers to test the functionality of the stress tolerance genes. Plants will be established in four plots 25m by 1.4m in size.

With commercialisation of the technology at least five years away, some farmers are hoping the technology will increase their productivity.

Corrigin farmer Lex Stone has wanted to incorporate GM salt-tolerant cereals into his farming system for the past decade.

Mr Stone plants 100,000 saltbush seedlings a year and wants to integrate GM cereals with saltbush to give his livestock roughage.

He said livestock in the Wheatbelt had already been grazing GM canola and was confident of the processes and regulatory approvals used by the OGTR.

“It wouldn’t let crazy scientists breed Frankenstein food,” he said.

But Mr Stone said a wide range of plants, not just GM cereals, were needed to “green the valley floor”.

If the trials proceed, it will be the second time GM wheat has been trialled in the field in WA.

In 2005, Grain Biotech Australia trialled two strains of GM wheat on a site affected by salinity.

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