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Genetically modified traits for the future, including frost and salt tolerance, healthier and nutrient-rich grains and oilseeds and increased yields were in the spotlight at a recent forum in Cunderdin.

Organised by the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) and Agrifood Awareness Australia, the October 13 seminar was attended by about 80 producers, keen to gain further insight into advances in GM science and its commercial applications.

The participants heard of the need for further research into the 'frontier' science that could transform the agrifood sector and help Australia meet human food demand on a global scale.

PGA Western Graingrowers chairman John Snooke said the event was an outstanding success, due largely to the quality of the speakers.

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CSIRO Food Futures Flagship director Bruce Lee, who leads a team of 250 research scientists under the Food Futures Flagship, told participants that in the next 20 years, eight billion people would need to eat food produced on the same amount of land as today; emerging markets would challenge Australia's $5 billion annual wheat exports, and an obesity crisis would coincide with a global growth in demand for meat and fish.

He also outlined how the CSIRO was developing grains with altered starch characteristics, which could deliver benefits for improved bowel health and a reduction in the risk of colorectal cancer. The scientific organisation was also working on modifying the oil profile of canola to target cardio-vascular disease.

Dr Lee said perception was a major issue and his team were also working with a group of psychologists to discover what foods would be acceptable to the public.

Researcher Ulrik John, from the Department of Primary Industries Victoria presented his research on identifying frost-tolerant genes from the only grass indigenous to Antarctica, Antarctic hair grass. Dr John has spent the past 10 years trying to develop frost-tolerant wheat. University of Adelaide scientist Andrew Jacob provided an overview of the Australian Centre for Plant Genomics development of drought-resistant and saline-tolerant wheat varieties and the ability to increase nitrogen use efficiency and increase nutrients in cereals.

Carl Ramage, of Rautaki Solutions, discussed the regulatory approval process involved in the development of GM crops, and WA researchers Bryan Whan from Intergrain and Professor Wallace Cowling from Canola Breeders WA gave a West Australian perspective on new developments in canola and wheat breeding programs

Craig White, from Bayer Cropscience, and agronomist Bill Crabtree discussed the commercial applications of GM grains and the latest advances through the National Varieties Trials (NVT), saying there was a growing acceptance of GM technology by WA farmers.

The other side of the GM story was presented by Janet Cotter, senior scientist at the Greenpeace International Laboratory based at the University of Exeter. Dr Cotter last week met with policy makers in Canberra and travelled to WA.

The scientist, hosted by Greenpeace, was in Australia to discuss safety concerns with GM wheat and highlight contamination risks associated with GM crops. She referred to recent contamination events at Steve Marsh's organic farm in Kojonup, a GM canola spill near Williams and flooding of Bob Mackely's farm in Victoria, emphasising that the risks of contamination to conventional crops and wild vegetation were real.

Dr Cotter also mentioned a proposed settlement agreement, announced by Bayer CropScience in July to resolve a number of lawsuits by farmers relating to genetically modified rice contamination and market losses, dating back to 2006.

Bayer has confirmed the settlement offer of $US750 million to about 11,000 US long-grain rice farmers but maintained it acted responsibly in the handling of its biotech rice, saying the company considered it important to resolve the litigation so it could move forward.

The settlement was contingent on the participation of a sufficient number of growers to represent at least 85 per cent of US long-grain rice acreage.

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