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The Future of Drought-Tolerant Wheat is Near

Published on: 00:00AM Dec 12, 2018

I have seen the future of wheat and it’s in Argentina.

Or at least one version of it which would be of great benefit to an Australian farmer like me.

Let me explain. Two years ago, I had the chance to visit Argentina in a low rainfall area very similar to areas in my state of South Australia. It was early spring, which for us in the southern hemisphere means that crops were only three or four months away from harvest.

Our group of Australian farmers was on a study tour of South American farms, eager to learn about new methods, technologies and ideas that we could bring back to our own farms.

Outside of Buenos Aires, we examined wheat trials. The trials looked like pretty much any other low rainfall wheat trials, but in this case the crops were of great interest to me because they were genetically modified.

Years before, scientists had learned that the HB4 gene in sunflowers confers drought tolerance. They developed this trait into other crops, such as corn and soybeans—and also wheat, making them drought tolerant and allowing the crops to grow more productively in dry periods without incurring any production penalty during better seasons.

Did I have farmer envy?  You bet!!

These trials of thriving HB4 wheat which yielded 25 percent more than non-GM varieties in drought conditions and in good moisture conditions yielded the same or marginally better than the conventional varieties.  They illustrated a potential future for those of us producing food in challenging environments.

I’d love to grow GM drought-tolerant wheat on my farm in Buckleboo where we receive an average 12 inches of rain annually. In this region, water is a precious commodity. Our no-till approach helps us conserve soil moisture and we choose crops suited to this environment of short growing seasons.

Yet not even the best available varieties do well in a drought.

This hardy HB4 wheat crop is so promising that Argentina is on the verge of commercialization. Soon, GM wheat could become as common as GM corn and soybeans. In Argentina—as well as Brazil, Canada, the United States, and other countries—GM corn and soybeans are so typical that the non-GM varieties are downright unconventional.

Australia is currently working closely with Argentina and other South American countries to increase collaboration across agriculture.  This coupled with the close relationship that already exist between organizations like Australia’s peak research and development body, the CSIRO, and Bioceres in Argentina means we are well-positioned to make significant progress towards the introduction of drought tolerant wheat in Australia.

Sadly, my state of South Australia bans GM crops based on markets alone. It denies farmers the opportunity to access safe, proven technologies that support sustainable agriculture.  Farmers who seek to produce more with less inputs—and grow more food on less land—need the choice to access innovative and proven tools like GM technology, according to our agronomic and climatic needs, to support these goals.

Yet we don’t have GMs here, despite farmers in other Australian states and other countries taking them for granted. Maybe even more concerning is the significant impact on the scientific community with South Australia’s loss of some brilliant crop scientists over the years as they leave to work in places friendlier to innovation.  This is a sad and irreparable loss of expertise and opportunity for our state and industry.

I’ve never supported South Australia’s restriction on GM crops, but I’ll agree that when it was imposed 15 years ago, we knew less about GMs than we do now. Today, almost a generation later, millions of farmers have grown billions of acres of GMs and they’ve become the ingredients in perhaps trillions of meals.

The science always has told us they’re safe. Now experience says the same.

The good news is that more people in South Australia are acknowledging these facts.  A change of government and some significant reviews will hopefully give the moratoria significant scrutiny and provide the impetus for change.

The moment is right. Much of Australia is suffering severe drought right now, some areas for several consecutive years. What’s more, we would benefit from crops with other key traits such as frost tolerance, salt tolerance and as a tool to help adapt to climate change and predicted increasing temperatures.

Technology can help us in so many ways.  It’s hard enough when farmers have to endure droughts and other natural disasters. It’s even worse when we have to struggle through the manmade ones.

Access to GM varieties like HB4 drought-tolerant wheat can’t come soon enough.

Heather Baldock and her husband Graeme, along with their son and daughter-in-law, grow wheat, barley, canola, and pulses on a 4th generation family farm on Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.  Heather is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.

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