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Australian trial of gene-edited wheat aims for 10% bigger yields

REUTERS
                                Grain silos are seen on the horizon near Moree, Australia, in 2020.
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REUTERS

Grain silos are seen on the horizon near Moree, Australia, in 2020.

CANBERRA >> The groundwork for a major trial of gene-edited wheat has begun in Australia, where a state company is growing hundreds of varieties it says could be up to 10% more productive and make farming more sustainable.

Gene-editing is an emerging technique its advocates say could create more nutritious, hardier crops with higher yields and less need for water, fertiliser and chemicals.

Unlike genetic modification (GMO), gene-editing does not introduce foreign DNA, instead manipulating the existing natural genome.

Because of that, many regulators and scientists see it as less risky than GMO and closer to traditional plant breeding. The technique also allows more than one gene to be changed, allowing a wider range of modifications.

Australian seed breeder InterGrain earlier this year imported several thousand wheat seeds created by U.S. agritech company Inari, including hundreds of new genetic variations, InterGrain chief executive Tress Walmsley told Reuters.

These seeds are now growing in a testing greenhouse in southeast Queensland. Seeds from those plants will be used to grow more plants, producing enough seeds to plant at more than 45 trial sites across the country in the 2025 growing season, Walmsley said.

“Our job is to work out which gene combination gives the best results. Our goal is at least 10% yield improvement. These seeds have the potential to achieve that,” she said.

“Potentially we could be looking to have products in the market in around 2028.”

10-15 TIMES FASTER

Inari uses artificial intelligence to map huge numbers of potential gene edits and then applies CRISPR-Cas – a tool that can find and alter selected stretches of DNA – to change multiple genes simultaneously, allowing it to dial up or down characteristics.

Gene editing could achieve gains 10-15 times faster than traditional plant breeding, InterGrain and Inari said.

Some gene-edited crops are already available but most offer specific nutritional improvements or disease resistance rather than a range of changes aimed at higher productivity per unit of water or fertiliser.

“We want to solve food security, climate change and farm profitability at the same time,” said Inari CEO Ponsi Trivisvavet.

Australia is one of the world’s biggest wheat exporters, and Walmsley said InterGrain was working to make sure regulatory processes were in place that would allow Australia to sell gene-edited crops into its export markets.

Regulators in countries including the U.S. and Japan have decided gene-edited crops are akin to those derived from breeding, making their approval simpler.

The European Union is moving in a similar direction, and China, the biggest wheat producer and consumer, this month approved a gene-edited disease-resistant wheat for planting.

Inari is also working with seed companies to commercially launch a gene-edited high-yielding soybean in the U.S. It did not say what yield improvements these beans offered.

Genetically modified soybeans and corn have been widely adopted in recent decades but consumers and regulators have been less willing to sanction GMO wheat because unlike soybeans and corn, which are mainly fed to animals, wheat is a staple food for humans.

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