Australia's First Trial of Biotech Wheat Won't Solve Salinity Crisis

Grain Biotech Australia says salt-tolerant crop could be a valuable crop, but it won't solve Western Australia's salinity problem. Compiled by staff 

Published on: Dec 14, 2005

Last week Australia harvested it's first ever crop of biotech wheat, which scientists hoped would lead to strains that are tolerant to waterlogging, frost and salt.  ABC Online reports the trial of salt-tolerant GM wheat by Grain Biotech Australia at a property near Corrigin, east of Perth, is not seen as the answer to the state's salinity crisis, but could be a valuable tool for growers.

The crop is the culmination of a three-year, $2 million program carried out amid strict quarantine by Grain Biotech Australia and the Grains Research Development Corporation. The trial modified two standard wheat varieties in a bid to produce grain that could be sown on land lost to salinity.

GBA business development manager Alan Trough says a full analysis on yield, grain quality, starch and protein levels would be available in March but, on the face of it, the trial had been a success and offered hope for salt-affected farmland.

"Further testing will show if the grain is good or if increasing the hardiness of the grain has sacrificed quality," he says.

Trough says the Corrigin trial was part of an ongoing program to bring GM wheat to a stage where it could be grown commercially. It was one of only a handful of GM wheat trials in the world and it was unlikely GM wheat would be available for commercial planting in Australia before 2011. There is a moratorium on commercial GM crops in WA until 2009 but GM cotton and canola crops have been tested.

Agriculture Minister Kim Chance says this week that a lot could be learned from the wheat trial and the State Government would like to see similar trials to improve knowledge of the science behind GM technology.

Corrigin farmer Lex Stone, who faces losing half the family farm to salinity, says that for every year he had to wait for a crop that was salt tolerant the less viable his farm became.

"Managing salinity is a seven-day-a-week job for me and in the last few years I have spent upwards of $250,000 on land care works and rebuilding the farm. That is why I am interested in this technology," he says.

"GM wheat won't fix the salinity but it will allow us to grow crops. I say bring it on."

The prospect of more tolerant wheat comes amid fears that bad weather will see this season's Western Australia harvest fall short of the projected 12.8 million tonnes. GRDC western panel chairman Dale Baker says growers had underestimated the damage from losses to frost and hail. There could also be quality problems because of the late start to the season.