Redman opens GM facility

Kate PollardCountryman

Grain growers in the Great Southern hope a new research facility to evaluate genetically modified trial crops will expose plant breeders to local issues.

A small number of growers helped Agriculture Minister Terry Redman, department staff and grain industry representatives celebrate the official opening of the New Genes for New Environments facility in Katanning last Thursday.

It's part of the State Government's $9 million investment into research infrastructure along with a facility in Merredin to evaluate the performance of trial GM crops in a safe and controlled environment.

Traits to improve frost, salt and drought tolerance in wheat and barley lines will be trialled next year at Katanning in an enclosed five hectare site. The high security facility also has a two-metre perimeter fence and office that includes laboratory space for researchers.

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Kojonup farmer and former Western chairman of the Grains Research and Development Corporation Neil Young came to see what was built.

"GM is critical as part of the breeding technology we are going to use and to be able to have access to a facility in the Great Southern is a great thing," he said.

"It will also bring breeding companies here and draw their focus and attention to the issues and problems we have farming in the Great Southern."

If the drying climate concept is proven, the southern region will become a critical area for grain production.

And coupled with food security challenges and the world population expected to double by 2050, researchers say GM isn't the sole solution, but will have a role.

During his speech, Mr Redman said GM technology had led to a $62 billion increase in farm income in Canada, the US and South America.

In Australia, industry has seen a $200 million benefit since 1996 as well as a 30 per cent decrease in the environmental impact of using herbicide and pesticide.

While strongly subscribing to a scientific based approach and choice, Mr Redman said the technology is worth looking at.

"We believe we need to support investments in the facilities that allow us to properly research it in the hope that the industry gets a benefit down the track," he said.

The new facility has to meet national standards of the Office of Gene Technology Regulator, as do the research partners who will work with the department to evaluate the trial GM crops.

GM wheat and barley trials in Merredin have already shown promising results with one glasshouse trial showing yield increases of 26 to 29 per cent highlighting the potential of the technology.

For researchers, including Andrew Jacobs from the Australian Centre for Plant Genomics, being able to test plants with promising traits and phenotypes in the field after glass house conditions is critical.

"This facility and others like it allow us to do this in a safe a responsible manner," he said.

Mr Andrews also believes by doing this, it will allow researchers to help growers on both sides of the fence, to make informed decisions.

For Katanning farmer Peter Kerin, the facility is an exciting development not just for the local area, but also agriculture and for GM technology.

More than 25 per cent of his farm is mild to very saline land so research into salt-tolerant traits as well as frost are most welcome.

Last year the Kerins grew GM canola but were disappointed with the yield and weed control.

But Mr Kerin is hopeful the technology will provide yield increases to help boost returns for the bottom line.

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