Quarterly Update – Edition 20
- Council Activity
- Key Issues
- In the pipeline
- For information
FROM THE CHAIRMAN
Welcome to the latest update from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA). In a year that many would care to forget as COVID-19 has ravaged the globe, developments in agricultural biotechnology have forged ahead both in Australia and abroad.
In a very welcome development, South Australian farmers celebrated a win in November when the state government announced that farmers across the state’s mainland will have the choice to grow GM food crops in the 2021 season with no councils approved to operate as GM-cultivation free areas.
South Australian farmers will join the 17 million producers planting GM crop varieties around the world according to the latest global statistics, and they will experience the increased food security, sustainability and climate change mitigation benefits these crops offer.
In late September, we proudly launched the fourth edition of the Official Australian Reference Guide to Agricultural Biotechnology and GM Crops (the Guide) at the National Press Club in Canberra as part of our continued efforts to contribute to the production of reliable, accessible, and factual inputs to public debate on agricultural biotechnology. Please take a moment to have a look at this publication at the links below.
It appears that 2020 has been a wonderful opportunity for publication of research papers, with a small snapshot featured in this update on some exciting developments. They range from barley and wheat genome studies, photosynthetic pathway modifications in rice, and plant cell wall structures, to nutrition-enhanced meat, cows more suited to climate change conditions and the meat intake thoughts of Gen Z.
Other highlights from this Update include the commercial release of a GM pink pineapple in the USA and a drought-tolerant GM wheat in Argentina, as well as the massive opportunities CRISPR is bring to agricultural biotechnology and the deserved attention biotechnology is receiving as a tool for combatting the challenges upon us in relation to food security and climate change mitigation.
Personally, I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Chair of ABCA’s Expert Scientific Panel, Dr TJ Higgins, for his achievement in being named as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr Higgins has made a significant contribution to both gene technology research particularly in Australia at CSIRO and in Africa, and to gene technology communication and awareness efforts through his career.
Finally, we would like to wish you all a safe and wonderful festive season and a Happy New Year.
Ken Matthews AO
ABCA LAUNCHES UPDATED GUIDE TO AG BIOTECH AND GM CROPS
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) launched the fourth edition of its Official Australian Reference Guide to Agricultural Biotechnology and GM Crops (the Guide) at the National Press Club in Canberra.
“In an increasingly alarming world of fake news, alternative facts, disinformation, disdain for experts, suspicion of science, opinions trumping evidence, and blindly partisan position-taking, we need more reliable, accessible, and factual inputs to public debate on matters of science,” said Chairman of ABCA, Ken Matthews AO.
The Guide was developed in conjunction with an expert national scientific panel and world leading specialists in the field. It provides credible, balanced, science-based information on agricultural biotechnology to allow for informed decisions about the application, uses and future of agricultural biotechnology in Australia, and a better understanding of its benefits and safety.
Mr Matthews continued, “The world’s population is growing quickly and is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Food production will need to double to feed the world. Finding double the area of land for global crop production is simply not realistic, doubling inputs is not feasible and finding double the amount of water is impossible.
“Global agriculture needs to innovate, not simply duplicate, and agricultural biotechnology is increasingly recognised as a critical part of the solution.”
The Guide, now in its fourth edition, has evolved to include the latest technology developments in agricultural biotechnology with a focus on the role gene-editing will play in agriculture and beyond. The guide also follows the evolution of consumer attitudes, in Australia and globally, and gives voices to farmers who are the experts at growing what feeds our nation.
“When considering the growth and sustainability of Australia’s agriculture industry, especially while facing unprecedented environmental challenges, Australian farmers must remain committed to integrating science and technology in farming practices,” said Mr Matthews.
“Too often, agriculture is viewed as yesterday’s industry, or worse – a legacy industry imposing environmental costs on a fragile Australian landscape. That’s not the agriculture I know and care about. More and more Australian farms are capital intensive, R&D driven, environmentally conscious, nimble, technologically advanced, and entrepreneurial.
“This is the agriculture industry that exists and must be promoted. Just as people concerned about climate change urge us to listen to the science, so too should the science and evidence be front and centre in the gene technology debate.”
ABCA provides a weekly summary of biotechnology news developments for subscribers. Contact ABCA to be added to the distribution list, or forward through any information you would like to see included.
ABCA has issued a number of Alerts in recent months. The notifications have largely focused on the resolution in South Australia where efforts by industry and farmer organisations to deliver GM crop choice and access to the state’s growers for 2020 have yielded a positive outcome. See more in Key Issues.
GM CROP UPTAKE AND BENEFITS QUANTIFIED BY TWO REPORTS
Farmers who planted genetically modified (GM) crops increased their incomes by almost $19 billion in 2018 and reduced carbon emissions by 23 billion kilograms or the equivalent of removing 15.3 million cars from the roads that year according to a report by UK-based PG Economics.
“GM crop technology continues to make an important contribution to reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and securing global food supplies in a sustainable way. It has also helped lift many small, resource-poor farmers and their families in developing countries out of poverty” said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics, co-author of the report.
The report presents peer-reviewed data indicating that:
- Crop biotechnology has reduced agriculture’s environmental impact – GM crops have significantly reduced agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by helping farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage, which decreases the burning of fossil fuels and retains more carbon in the soil. Further, from 1996 to 2018, crop biotechnology reduced the application of crop protection products by 776 million kilograms, a global reduction of 8.6 percent.
- Crop biotechnology delivers an excellent return on investment for the farmers using the technology, for example in 2018, farmers in developing countries received $4.42 as extra income for each extra dollar invested in GM crop seeds, and farmers in developed countries received $3.24 as extra income for each extra dollar invested in GM crop seeds.
- Crop biotechnology has contributed to global food security and reduced pressure to use new land in agriculture largely by increasing yields through improved pest and weed control. If GM crops had not been available to farmers in 2018, maintaining global production levels that year would have required the planting of an additional 12.3 million hectares (ha) of soybeans, 8.1 million ha of corn, 3.1 million ha of cotton and 0.7 million ha of canola.
This month, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) released their annual GM crop overview stating that the number of countries cultivating GM crops grew last year with 17 million farmers reaping the increased food security, sustainability and climate change mitigation benefits.
In total, 190.4 million hectares of GM crops were grown in 29 countries in 2019, up from 26 countries in 2018. The five countries with the widest area of GM crops sown were the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India, where approximately 1.95 billion people or 26 per cent of the world reaped the benefits of biotechnology in 2019.
According to the ISAAA report, Australia grew 614,446 hectares of GM cotton, canola, and safflower varieties. Australia’s extended extreme drought during the 2019 growing season affected canola and cotton production, resulting in Australia’s cotton area being the smallest on record, but the adoption rate of GM canola went up due to better weed control and higher profit.
“When farmers are given access to choose GM crops, they can grow more on less land, increase crop yields, contribute to international competitiveness and reduce agriculture’s environmental impact,” said Matthew Cossey, Chief Executive Officer of CropLife Australia.
Importantly, the African continent recorded dramatic progress in both the adoption and research and development of GM crops. Malawi, Nigeria, and Ethiopia joined South Africa, Sudan, and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) in adopting GM crops. GM crop research, regulation, and acceptance developed significantly in Mozambique, Niger, Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia.
Double-digit growth rates were also recorded in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Colombia.
Genetically modified crop offerings for consumers now extend dramatically beyond the traditional corn, soybean, cotton and canola varieties to include lucerne (1.3 million hectares), sugar beets (473,000 hectares), sugarcane (20,000 hectares), papaya (12,000 hectares), safflower (3,500 hectares), potatoes (2,265 hectares), eggplant (1,931 hectares), and less than 1,000 hectares of squash, apples, and pineapple.
Additionally, GM crop research underway by public sector institutions around the world includes rice, banana, potato, wheat, chickpea, pigeon pea, and mustard featuring various traits beneficial to food producers and consumers in developing countries.
Genetically modified crops can contribute to a “sustainable intensification” strategy favoured by many science academies worldwide, which allows productivity and production to be increased on the current 1.5 billion hectares only of global cropland, thereby saving forests and biodiversity from clearing according to ISAAA.
FARMERS CAN GROW GM CROPS ACROSS MAINLAND SA IN 2021
The Government of South Australia announced in November that farmers across the state’s mainland will have the choice to grow GM food crops in the 2021 season with no councils approved to operate as GM-cultivation free areas.
In May this year, the GM crop moratorium was lifted across mainland South Australia, but councils had six months to apply to be a designated GM crop cultivation-free area for trade and marketing purposes. Eleven of the 68 councils in the state applied for the designation. Their applications were assessed by an independent GM Crop Advisory Committee.
Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development David Basham said outside of Kangaroo Island, there was no substantial evidence to justify any council area remaining GM-free.
“The GM Crop Advisory Committee assessed the 11 applications and deemed there wasn’t sufficient evidence to recommend designation as an area where no GM food crops can be grown. The Committee said individual businesses can maintain non-GM markets as occurs in other mainland states,” he said.
“By lifting the GM moratorium everywhere except Kangaroo Island, we are backing our farmers and researchers to grow the state’s agriculture sector and create jobs,” he added.
Farmers across the state welcomed the historic decision, with Grain Producers SA Chair Adrian McCabe stating it was an historic day.
“As a grower, I am very excited about this decision because after 16 long years we can now aspire to be on a level playing field with our mainland interstate counterparts,” he said.
“SA growers finally have certainty in planning their crop rotations as we head into the 2021 season with optimism,” he said.
Mr McCabe said the decision to lift the moratorium across mainland SA would unlock the economic potential of SA’s cropping sector in line with the SA Grain Industry Blueprint’s vision to create a $6 billion industry by 2030.
“This decision is a win for farmers, for science and for a more productive, environmentally sustainable and profitable future for South Australian farming. This decision ends a thorough and open consultation process in which all issues were comprehensively examined,” said Matthew Cossey, Chief Executive Officer, CropLife Australia.
“The ultimate winners will be all South Australians, with the same economic benefits experienced in other Australian states to now flow through SA,” he said.
“What has been found is what we’ve known all along, the GM status of a region does not impact on the trade and marketing of any other product or produce, including South Australia’s world-renowned wine industry. Rather, it’s the high-quality of South Australian produce and farming practices that afford them any premium prices they receive,” he said.
“Coexistence between GM, non-GM and organic farms is possible, as has been demonstrated for at least a decade in all other mainland Australian states and for several decades in many other countries,” he concluded.
The 11 councils who unsuccessfully applied to have local GM moratoriums were Adelaide Hills Council, Alexandrina Council, Barossa Council, Berri Barmera Council, City of Onkaparinga, City of Playford, District Council of Yankalilla, Mount Barker District Council, City of Tea Tree Gully, Town of Gawler and City of Victor Harbor.
GLOBAL WHEAT AND BARLEY RESEARCH YIELDS MASSIVE DEVELOPMENTS
An international team of scientists, including researchers from Australia, have sequenced and analysed the genomes of wheat and barley varieties that represent breeding programs from around the world.
The research provides the most comprehensive atlas of genome sequences for the crops reported to date and brings scientists closer to unlocking the entire gene set – or pan genomes – of wheat and barley. Through understanding the full extent of genetic variation in these cereals, researchers and plant breeders will have the necessary tools to realise the required increased global production.
The studies, published in Nature, will aid global crop breeding considerably, helping to improve crop yield, quality and pest resistance in wheat, barley and other important crop plants.
C4 RICE PROGRESS UPDATE
An international long-term research collaboration, the C4 Rice Project, aimed at creating high yielding and water use efficient rice varieties has achieved a major milestone. Researchers have successfully installed part of the photosynthetic machinery from maize into rice.
Rice, one of the main world food staples, fixes carbon via the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which is considered less efficient than the C4 pathway found in crops like maize. Scientists predict that the introduction of the more efficient C4 photosynthesis traits into rice will potentially increase photosynthetic efficiency by fifty per cent, improve nitrogen use efficiency and double water use efficiency.
“We assembled five genes from maize that code for five enzymes in the C4 photosynthetic pathway into a single gene construct and installed it into rice plants,” said lead author Dr Maria Ermakova, who works at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) at the Australian National University as part of the project.
“Although introducing all the genes required to make C4 rice still a long way off, this is the first paper where we assembled a functional C4 biochemistry in rice, which is very exciting,” said Dr Ermakova.
Using synthetic biology, scientists can introduce several genes at the same time, get a plant in just a year and make prototypes to redesign their “constructs” very rapidly, just in a matter of months. In sharp contrast, the old approach which inserts one single gene each time can take several years.
“For me, the most important aspect of this paper is that we have mastered the technology that will help us in our journey towards C4 rice and now we can move forward to the next phase at a higher velocity than ever before,” said CoETP’s Deputy Director Professor Susanne von Caemmerer, one of the co-authors of this study.
The C4 Rice Project consortium, led by Oxford University, comprises the Academia Sinica, Australian National University, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, Leibniz Institute of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Washington State University and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Oxford.
This research has been partially funded by the ARC CoETP which aims to improve the process of photosynthesis to increase the production of major food crops such as sorghum, wheat and rice. The paper was published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
GEN Z NOT READY FOR ‘FAKE’ MEAT DESPITE ANIMAL WELFARE AND ENVIRO CONCERNS
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Curtin University have surveyed Generation Z (those between 18 and 25) about their attitudes towards lab-grown meat. They found that despite having a great concern for the environment and animal welfare, 72 per cent of respondents were not ready to accept lab-cultured meat (often referred to as “fake meat”).
About two billion people globally are part of Gen Z, so their influence on agricultural and other sectors is significant.
According to the research findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, the five main attitudes towards cultured meat are:
- 35 per cent rejected cultured meat and edible insects but accepted plant-based alternatives because they “sounded more natural” and are “normal”.
- 28 per cent believed cultured meat was acceptable or possibly acceptable if the technology could be mastered.
- 17 per cent of respondents rejected all alternatives, including cultured meat, seeing it as chemically produced and heavily processed.
- 11 per cent rejected all alternatives in favour of increased consumption of fruit and vegetables, saying they will stick with a vegetarian diet.
- A fifth group (nine per cent) accepted edible insects but rejected cultured meat as it was too artificial and not natural like insects.
BACTERIUM ENZYME OFFERS CROP PRODUCTION BOOST HOPE
Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) at The Australian National University (ANU) have found a way to engineer more efficient versions of the plant enzyme Rubisco by using a red-algae-like Rubisco from a bacterium.
Rubisco controls how much and how fast plants fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars and energy during photosynthesis. It has long been considered a prime target for increasing crop production, but with little success, until now.
“We discovered 20 years ago that red algae can produce more efficient versions of Rubisco than those found in plants but we have been frustrated by not being able to produce algae Rubisco in plants,” said lead researcher Professor Spencer Whitney.
To overcome this hurdle, Professor Whitney and his team turned their attention to the red-algae-like Rubisco from the photosynthetic bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides and found that the red Rubisco of this bacterium is accepted inside the chloroplasts of plants.
“As the assembly requirements of this red Rubisco are relatively simple, we found that plants could make lots of it,” says co-author Dr Elena Martin-Avila.
“We are already well on the way to doubling the CO2-fixation rate of this already very fast bacterial red-Rubisco using laboratory evolution. Our next step is to see how well the evolved red Rubisco isoforms can stimulate crop photosynthesis, growth and yield,” says Professor Whitney.
This research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists (PNAS).
PLANT WALL CONSTRUCTION MECHANISM DISCOVERED
University of Adelaide researchers as part of a multidisciplinary, international team, have discovered the enzymatic reaction involving carbohydrates present in plant cell walls, which are essential for a plant’s structure.
Project leader, Professor Maria Hrmova, said the discovery contributes to important knowledge about how plant cell walls could be formed, structured and re-modelled.
“Plant cell walls perform a number of essential functions, including providing shape to the many different cell types needed to form the tissues and organs of a plant, intercellular communication, and they play a role in plant-microbe interactions, including defence responses against potential pathogens,” Professor Hrmova said.
According to the media release, the findings could have far-reaching implications for the sustainability of plant-based industries such as agriculture, horticulture, forestry for biofuels production and food and materials processing.
This research was published in The Plant Journal.
GM MEAT WITH ENHANCED NUTRITION
A group of researchers at Tufts University in the USA have genetically modified cow muscle cells to produce plant nutrients not normally found in beef cells. Using the same carotenoid pathway used in golden rice, they modified bovine cells so that they produce beta carotene – a provitamin usually found in carrots and tomatoes.
According to the researchers, these findings, published in the journal Metabolic Engineering, are proof of principle for using gene technology and cellular agriculture to create novel foods. Rather than simply mimicking meat currently found in the grocery store, cell-cultured meat products are capable of assuming different shapes, textures, nutritional profiles, and bioactivities.
DAIRY COWS MODIFIED TO MEET CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE
Scientists are genetically modifying dairy cows to make them better suited to climate change. A New Zealand team is using CRISPR genome editing to create cows with grey patches instead of black which would decrease the amount of heat they absorb while in pasture.
The research is available in bioRxiv.
PHOTOSYNTHESIS MODIFICATION YIELDS RESULTS
To improve their photosynthesis efficiency and increase growth, tobacco plants have been modified with a protein found in algae that could point the way to higher-yielding crops in a drier climate.
While increasing the photosynthetic capacity was the main aim of the research, the UK-based scientists also found that under trial conditions the GM plants needed much less water to produce the higher yields.
GM FOOD APPROVAL APPLICATIONS – UPDATE
The latest applications to amend the Food Standards Code relating to GM commodities in Australia and New Zealand are outlined below.
|A1216||Canola||Bayer CropScience||Herbicide tolerant||An application has been received for FSANZ’s approval. Public consultation is scheduled between January and February 2021.|
|A1202||Corn||Dow Agriscience Australia||Insect resistant (corn rootworm) and herbicide tolerant.||An application has been received for FSANZ’s approval. Public consultation is scheduled between August and October.|
|A1199||Potato||SPS International Inc||Lower reducing sugars, low acrylamide potential, reduced browning (black spot) and late blight protection.
|A1198||Corn||Dow Agriscience Australia||Enhanced yield and herbicide tolerance||Under assessment|
|A1196||Soybean||BASF Australia||Nematode resistant and herbicide tolerant.||Approved.|
|A1192||Corn||Monsanto Australia Ltd||Herbicide tolerant.||Approved.|
OGTR LICENCE UPDATES
This table provides a summary of recent licence applications and approvals granted by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) in relation to agricultural biotechnology.
|DIR 176||White Clover||PTM Solutions Australia Pty Ltd||Modified for increased condensed tannins in leaves
|Field trial licence sought. Risk Assessment Risk Management Plan (RARMP) released for public comment by 05 January 2021.|
|DIR 175||Canola||BASF Australia Ltd||Herbicide tolerance and hybrid breeding system||Commercial release sought. Risk Assessment Risk Management Plan (RARMP) to be released for public consultation in December|
|DIR 173||Cotton||Monsanto Australia||Herbicide tolerance – dicamba and glufosinate||Commercial release sought. Approval granted 15 October 2020.|
GM CROP EXPERT DR TJ HIGGINS ANNOUNCED AS 2020 FELLOW BY AAAS
Dr TJ Higgins from CSIRO has been named as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Dr Higgins, Chair of ABCA’s Expert Scientific Panel, has spent the latter part of his career working with an international team of researchers to protect cowpeas from the damaging legume pod-borer. Cowpeas or black-eyed peas are a major source of protein for 200 million people in West Africa. Through breeding the Bt gene into cowpea, Dr Higgins and his African colleagues have given the plant its own built in insect protection.
In late 2019 the first insect-resistant cowpea variety was approved in Africa.
GM DROUGHT-TOLERANT WHEAT INTERESTS AUSSIE COMPANY
The world’s first GM wheat variety with drought tolerance was granted regulatory approval by Argentina’s Ministry of Agriculture in October. The drought-tolerant HB4 Wheat is a patented seed technology developed by Trigall Genetics, a joint venture between Bioceres and Florimond Desprez. Researchers say the variety, in which a sunflower gene was inserted, is 20 per cent more productive during drought years.
According to the Farm Weekly, Bill Crabtree, commonly known as No-Till Bill, and co-founder of Green Blueprint, a company with the ambition to introduce herbicide tolerant, drought tolerant and frost tolerant wheat into Australia, has expressed interest in the company bringing the genetic modifications to Australia for use by local farmers.
The drought-tolerant wheat has also captured the attention of crop developers and agencies in Canada, where drier conditions are also impacting cropping.
While it has been approved in Argentina, that country exports 85 per cent of its crop to neighbouring Brazil, which has yet to sign off on the crop.
NEW INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR CROP AND DIGITAL FARMING
Digital agriculture, heat-tolerant crops and robotic farming are to be given a big boost with the announcement of a multimillion-dollar International Centre of Crop and Digital Farming.
The new $12 million centre will be based at the 2000-hectare University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute in Narrabri.
“Global food security and the future of agriculture in NSW and Australia rely on the sort of research done by our scientists in Narrabri. This investment from the NSW Government and industry will ensure our 60-year tradition of world-class research will continue through the century,” said University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence.
GM COTTON REVITALISES WA’S ORD VALLEY
Cotton farmers in Western Australia’s Ord Irrigation Scheme recently wrapped up their largest harvest in a decade.
In an interview with the ABC, Kununurra farmer Fritz Bolten said advances in genetically modified varieties developed by the CSIRO had revolutionised the industry.
“I think the important thing is that we see cotton as a clean, green and environmentally friendly crop,” Mr Bolten said.
“Around 20-25 years ago before GM cotton was introduced, it was a high pesticide use crop, but it’s not anymore,” he said.
“In the Ord it might use 60 per cent of what the other base crops currently use, so it’s not a big water user,” he concluded.
GENE EDITING BREAKTHROUGH FOR SUPERIOR BARLEY TRAITS
Barley varieties with improved yield, quality and nitrogen-use efficiency are on the way after a breakthrough in gene editing technology that enables barley genes to be accurately turned ‘on and off’ to create a superior trait.
The technique, called Double Haploid CRISPR, is the result of research by the Western Crop Genetics Alliance, a partnership between the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).
Professor Chengdao Li, the Alliance director, said the new technique would create new plant breeding opportunities for barley, as well as other crops.
“Most importantly, no off-target mutations were created, giving plant breeders, regulators and the community confidence in the stability and safety of this gene editing technique,” he said.
“A similar technique has been used in the United States in maize breeding, while the technique shows potential for use with other crops, including wheat, pulses and rice, as well as horticulture plants.”
The technological finding was recently published in the esteemed international journal Plant Communications.
ANCIENT, WILD BANANAS COULD SAVE MODERN VARIETIES FROM CLIMATE CHANGE
Researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are looking to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to save the living ancient ancestors of modern-day bananas, so they can tap into their genetic potential.
“Papua New Guinea contains very unique species that only occur on the island of Papua, and it is one of the main ancestors of the commercial bananas we have now,” said Sebastien Carpentier, who led the expedition to PNG last year to collect and conserve the genetics of these wild bananas.
Genetic diversity is key to protecting cultivated varieties, such as cavendish and ladyfinger, from the adverse effects of climate change and pests and diseases, according to Dr Carpentier.
GM WHEAT DELIVERS 11 PER CENT YIELD BOOST IN TRIALS
Researchers at the UK’s University of York have developed a GM wheat variety that yielded 11.3 per cent higher than conventional varieties in trials undertaken at the Universidad Austral de Chile.
One commonly used approach to boosting grain yield involves genetically modifying wheat plants, so that each one produces a greater number of grains. Another approach involves causing the grains to grow larger and heavier. Unfortunately, though, plants that have been altered to produce bigger grains usually also grow fewer of them. As a result, the actual amount of food that can be obtained from each plant remains the same.
Led by Prof. Simon McQueen-Mason, York scientists set out to address the latter problem. In their new GM wheat, levels of a growth-rate-determining protein known as expansin are increased in the young plants.
DISEASE-RESISTANT BANANAS FOCUS OF INTERNATIONAL RESEARCHERS
Research underway at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Nairobi, Kenya is focused on developing banana varieties using CRISPR that are resistant to pests and diseases such as bacterial wilt, Fusarium wilt (caused by the fungus F. oxysporum) and banana streak virus using CRISPR.
Leena Tripathi, principal scientist in plant biotechnology at CIAT, is also using CRISPR to protect other staple crops across Africa against killer pathogens, for example plantains, cassavas and yams. Plantain varieties for west Africa that are resistant to the banana streak virus are under development, and next year Cavendish bananas resistant to bacterial wilt disease will be planted as part of field trials.
GENE-EDITED PRODUCTS OFFER PROMISE
Cibus, a US-based company pioneering new plant breeding techniques based on gene-editing technologies has recently had 12 of its trait products designated as non-GM by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This designation reduces regulatory hurdles and allows a much faster pathway to farmer access.
These new products were developed utilising Cibus’ Rapid Trait Development System which creates targeted genetic changes without integrating foreign genetic material at any stage in the crop’s development. These products are expected to be commercially available over the next five years, and they include a pod shatter-reduction trait that provides farmers greater flexibility for harvest timing, particularly under adverse weather conditions; eight traits that bolster a canola crop’s resistance to fungal disease; and, a trait for resistance to a novel herbicide that provides an alternative, more efficient weed control option.
Cibus also received approval for a high oleic acid trait in canola that provides a healthier oil in the nutraceutical market and is a more stable frying oil for food companies and food service operations, as well as approval for an additional herbicide resistance trait in rice.
OPINION – GREENPEACE STUDY BACKFIRES
The anti-GMO movement dominated the public discourse about crop biotechnology for decades. Thirty years later, we’re beginning to see that dynamic shift according to this opinion piece which concludes that as plant breeding technologies improve, experts are becoming better at defending it against activist attacks.
PATH TO ENDING WORLD HUNGER WITHIN A DECADE IDENTIFIED
Ceres 2030 has released new research which outlines a path to solving global hunger over the next decade for the world’s small-scale farmers.
They created a new AI machine-learning tool to analyse over 500,000 reports and articles and summarise the evidence from the last 20+ years of agricultural development literature. The evidence was compiled into 10 new research papers and published by Nature Research. Ten recommendations emerged from the research, including enabling participation in farmers’ organisations; investing in extension services, particularly for women; supporting the adoption of climate-resilient crops; improving the quality and quantity of livestock feed; and, reducing post-harvest losses.
Ceres 2030 is a partnership between Cornell IP-CALS, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD). Their mission is to provide the donor community with a menu of policy options for directing their investments, backed by the best available evidence and economic models.
PINK PINEAPPLES HIT THE MARKET IN THE USA
In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the commercial release of a genetically modified pink pineapple. The pineapple, grown and harvested in Costa Rica, is finally now available for purchase online to the American public.
Developed by Del Monte Fresh Produce, the Pinkglow Pineapples have been genetically modified to produce lower levels of the enzymes already in conventional pineapple that convert the pink pigment lycopene to the yellow pigment beta carotene. Lycopene is the pigment that makes tomatoes red and watermelons pink, so it is commonly and safely consumed.
CRISPR DEVELOPERS HONOURED
The prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemisty has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, “for the development of a method for genome editing.”
CRISPR has had an immense and immediate impact on the scientific world. It has become a common tool in laboratories around the world, and has generated industries working on making new medicines, agricultural products, and ways to control pests.
US GOVERNMENT BOOSTS CONSUMER EDUCATION EFFORTS AROUND GM FOODS
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released “Feed Your Mind” consumer education materials aimed at educating consumers by providing science-based information on genetically engineered foods.
The materials include videos and factsheets covering the topics below:
- Why do we have GMOs?
- Do GMOs Affect Your Health?
- GMO Crops and Food for Animals
- GMO Crops and Humanitarian Reasons for Development
- Types of Genetic Modification Methods for Crops
- Why Do Farmers in the U.S. Grow GMO Crops?
GENE EDITING POTENTIAL TO MITIGATE CLIMATE CHANGE
Gene editing technologies like CRISPR could lead to a 50 per cent improvement in agricultural productivity by 2050, according to a report released by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think tank for science and technology policy.
Specific examples presented include: reducing food waste by genetically modifying plants to last longer; gene editing and selective breeding to reduce emissions from ruminant animals like cattle; and, gene editing plants to improve their use of photosynthesis to deliver more effective carbon capturing and sequestering.
GM INSECT RESISTANT COWPEA DEVELOPMENTS IN BURKINA FASO AND NIGERIA
Burkina Faso scientists and farmers are planning to introduce GM cowpea, which uses the same pest-resistant Bt technology as cotton, to reduce pesticide use on this important high-protein staple crop.
Dr. Edgar Traore, coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Burkina Faso, said processes to develop GM cowpea that can resist the destructive pod borer pest have been ongoing for about five years.
In Nigeria, the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University (IAR/ABU) Zaria and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) have concluded arrangements for nationwide on-farm demonstrations to raise farmer awareness on the new GM cowpea variety.
The demonstration trials will be managed solely by farmers on their plots and supervised by government extension agents to ensure that the farmers follow laid down protocols.
CROPS OF THE FUTURE IN THE SPOTLIGHT IN ALABAMA
Plants that soak up heavy metals contaminating wastewater; produce edible proteins in space for astronauts; and crops that fight off viruses and pests for bigger yields and profits are all in the spotlight by Alabama scientists from Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Auburn University.
‘GOLDEN APPLE’ UNDER DEVELOPMENT IN CHILE
Dr Claudia Stange, Biochemist and president of the Chilean Society of Plant Biology, is driving Chile’s move to genetic technologies to adapt to climate change following the country’s worst drought in history – now moving into its tenth year.
Stange and her colleagues at the University of Chile are gene editing new varieties of apple, kiwi and tomato to improve their nutritional content and resistance to drought and saline soils.
Dr. Stange’s first major project, launched in 2011 and financed with public funds, had a similar goal to that of Golden Rice: to develop an apple modified to produce carotenoids. Chile is the world’s fourth largest exporter of apples, so improving the nutritional profile of exported varieties would boost its apple industry and benefit consumers worldwide.
Field trials of gene-edited drought or salt tolerant cereal, vegetable and fruit crops are all underway.
WHEAT GENE EDITING FUNDING TARGETS RUST, REDUCING FUNGICIDE USE
The University of California-Berkeley has secured US$3.2 million to implement advanced gene editing research aimed at developing wheat that is resistant to pathogens. If successful, the three-year project could help growers reduce fungicide use.
The grant also includes funding towards computational and synthetic biology approaches to develop novel resistance genes, through a wheat rust consortium, for rust-resistant wheat.
WINE PEST GENOME MAPPED
After more than ten years, scientists have mapped out the genome of an aphid-like pest capable of decimating vineyards. They have discovered how it spreads, and, potentially how to stop it.
The research team from the University of California, Riverside identified nearly 3,000 genes enabling the insect, phylloxera, to colonise and feed on grape vines by creating what are essentially nutritionally enhanced tumours. The insects live in and feed off of the structures they create.
According to the researchers, now that these genes have been identified, it may be possible to engineer phylloxera-resistant grapevines. The research team’s work on the genome was published in October in the BMC Biology journal.
GENE-EDITED BULL CALF ‘COSMO’ INTRODUCED
A bull calf, named Cosmo, genetically engineered so that 75 per cent of his offspring will be male, has been born at the University of California, Davis.
Using the genome-editing technology CRISPR, researchers can make targeted cuts to the genome or insert useful genes. In this case, scientists successfully inserted the cattle SRY gene, the gene that is responsible for initiating male development, into a bovine embryo. It’s the first successful demonstration of a targeted gene insertion of its type in cattle.
In the meat industry, males are preferable to female animals because they are heavier and are 15 per cent more efficient at turning food into bodyweight. It could also be a win for the environment, with fewer cattle needed to produce the same amount of beef.
“Ranchers could produce some females as replacements and direct a higher proportion of male cattle for market,” said Joey Owen, a postdoctoral researcher in animal science who is leading the project with said Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist with the UC Davis Department of Animal Science.
Due to COVID-19, the hosting of many ‘live’ events in the near future remains uncertain.
Date: 8-12 February 2021
Location: Online via University of Sydney, NSW
Details: The 65th annual Australasian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society conference will be held online in 2021. It is envisaged that majority of online sessions will be ‘live’ so that presenters and participants can interact directly. Recordings of sessions will be available for later viewing.
Further information: https://aares2021.org
The UN Food Systems Summit 2021
Date: September 2021
Details: The Secretary-General will convene this online Summit to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Further information: www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit
The 16th International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR) Symposium
Date: 31 October – 04 November 2021
Location: St Louis, Missouri, USA
Details: ISBR promotes scientifically sound research that supports biosafety assessment by improving communication among scientists who study plants, animals, and microbes with new characteristics due to altered DNA and produced using modern biotechnology.
ISPR’s international symposium addresses the biosafety and sustainability of applied biotechnology bringing together researchers, technology developers, regulatory authorities, policy makers, non-government organisations and other key stakeholders.
Further information: http://isbr.info
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