Pressure on GM grain trials

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Genetically modified wheat trials were sown at Corrigin this week amid heightened security fears for GM research.

Clad in hazard suits, three Greenpeace activists broke into a CSIRO facility in Canberra last Thursday and using whipper snippers, destroyed a 0.5-hectare trial plot of GM wheat.

The vandalism sparked condemnation from the agricultural industry and researchers admit the destruction of the plots is worrying. It also reignited calls by those concerned about the technology for GM wheat to be banned.

CSIRO plant industry chief Jeremy Burdon said staff were “deeply disappointed” to have lost an entire year’s research and put early estimates of the damage at up to $300,000.

The two trials were investigating improving wheat yields and boosting the levels of resistant starch in wheat to tackle obesity and diabetes.

Dr Burdon said the plots would most likely be abandoned this year, with research starting again next year.

“We have increased security already, but that’s a temporary measure and we will now assess all the permeations and combinations and work out what we believe is the best thing going forward, ” he said.

The wheat yield trial is being replicated at the Department of Agriculture and Food’s New Genes for New Environments facility at Merredin and Dr Burdon said CSIRO had already warned the department security might need to be increased.

The CSIRO field trials for GM wheat and barley at Merredin were sown in mid-May and are at the six-leaf stage.

CSIRO Future Grains theme leader Matthew Morell said the field trial relating to wheat yields followed glasshouse work which showed yield increases of up to 20 per cent. The aim of the other trial was to grow more grain from less fertiliser by using a GM nitrogen efficiency trait.

The results will not be analysed until after harvest and a decision made about whether they will be rerun will be made in early 2012.

But even if the trials’ results are positive, commercialisation of either strain is at least a decade away.

“The lines of wheat and barley that we have (at Merredin) are strictly for research purposes, ” Mr Morell said.

“If the technology proves to be as useful as we think it could be, then we would go through a separate process to develop, trial and test and ultimately go through the regulation process with plants that were purpose-designed for commercialisation.”

At Corrigin, the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) trials aim to look at salinity stress in wheat.

ACPFG chief executive Peter Langridge said the destruction of GM trials in Canberra was concerning but had not altered its plans for a trial site at Corrigin, which was sown on Monday by research service provider Kalyx Agriculture.

“To see that happening in Australia is quite sad and … I don’t think it’s helped the (GM) debate in Australia, ” Professor Langridge said. “It does (concern me) because the trials we’re doing involve a number of student PhD projects and if they were to be destroyed then it would have a big impact on the students.”

It’s the first time the ACPFG has conducted GM wheat trials in WA after plans to sow plots last year were abandoned because the planting window had closed.

Professor Langridge said the seeding of the plots was again late this year, but would still yield valuable results for researchers.

“In many respects, all we’re trying to do at the moment is get all the systems set up and start getting some preliminary information on how the site behaves, ” he said.

The trials will look at salinity stress in wheat, with two different plant mechanisms investigated.

“One of the mechanisms essentially pumps salt back out of the roots, so it minimises the amount of salt that really gets into the transpiration stream of the plant, ” Professor Langridge said.

“The other mechanism sequesters the salt in the vacuoles of the cells to reduce the toxicity.

“It’s very hard to quantify what the impact of these stresses are and part of the beauty of using GM is essentially lines are identical genetically, except for a single gene that has been transferred.

“So you can do a direct comparison between the lines of slightly elevated levels of salinity tolerance and normal plants. That’s very hard to do by conventional methods.”

If the trial is successful, the ACPFG hopes to continue the trials at the Corrigin site next year, possibly expanding the trial to other WA sites and investigating drought and nitrogen use efficiency lines.

Professor Langridge said commercialisation of the lines was still 15–20 years away.

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