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Interview

"Find the wisdom to allow GM technology to flourish"

A freely speaking scientist's opinion


Interview with Prof. German Spangenberg, Research Director, Primary Industries Research Victoria, Australia, on drought-tolerant wheat and other GM crop innovations. He is arguably Australia’s leading researcher into plant genetics and genomics.

Prof. German Spangenberg grew up in Uruguay, completed his PhD in Germany and conducted research in Switzerland.

GMO Compass: Professor Spangenberg, you recently obtained the regulatory approval for controlled field trials with genetically modified, drought-tolerant wheat. What's the purpose of these releases?

German Spangenberg: The purpose of this controlled field trial is to conduct proof-of-concept research to assess the performance of genetically modified (GM) wheat lines that express one of fifteen different candidate genes for drought tolerance derived from the plants thale cress and maize, a moss and yeast. The GM wheat lines will be evaluated under rain-fed, drought-prone conditions in Victoria, Australia.

Field trials with GM wheat lines. The project is testing various candidate genes for drought resistance. The aim is to produce wheat that delivers high yields during periods of drought without irrigation.

GMO Compass: You already conducted field trials with these GM wheat lines for drought tolerance in 2007. What were the results so far?

German Spangenberg: Yes, we undertook Australia’s first field trial with GM wheat for drought tolerance in 2007. In this field trial twenty-four lines of GM wheat were tested and seven of these were identified as providing higher yields under drought stress. Two GM wheat lines exceeded the yield of the control experimental variety by 20 per cent under drought stress, with no apparent yield penalty under irrigated conditions. These initial results are very promising, and have encouraged us to include these lines for further evaluation in the 2008 field trial, which we have just completed planting.

GMO Compass: How does the genetically introduced drought tolerance work?

German Spangenberg: The introduced genes encode proteins that are intended to enable normal plant growth with reduced amounts of water, thus conferring drought tolerance either by regulating gene expression or modulating biochemical pathways in the GM wheat plants.

 
"The candidate genes for drought tolerance currently assessed in GM wheat also have potential applications in other crops."

GMO Compass: Can the property of enforced drought resistance be introduced in other important crops as well?

German Spangenberg: Yes, the candidate genes for drought tolerance currently assessed in GM wheat also have potential applications in other crops.

 

GMO Compass: When and where do you expect the first commercial cultivation to take place?

German Spangenberg: Taking a GM crop towards the market place implies many years of research and development with comprehensive evaluation under field conditions representing an important part of the process. The current field trials of GM wheat lines are at the proof-of-concept research stage to enable the assessment of different candidate genes for drought tolerance. The knowledge gained from these trials then will inform the development and evaluation for product development and, ultimately, for the commercialisation of new GM wheat varieties that express the best candidate genes for drought tolerance. This process is expected to take 5 to 10 years before commercial adoption. A coordinated approach to GM wheat adoption would seem sensible in key wheat-growing countries around the world such as Australia, the USA, Canada and Argentina, particularly relating to GM wheat with key foundation traits such as drought tolerance and fungal disease resistance.

GMO Compass: Recent studies from several scientific bodies including the CSIRO predict more frequent droughts and higher temperatures for Australia in the wake of climate change. The national farming sector as a strong exporter of grain, beef and sheep seems to be seriously endangered. Can drought-tolerant or otherwise genetically modified plants become part of the answer towards this challenge?

German Spangenberg: Projected climate change implications for Australia suggest annual average warming over much of inland Australia of 1 – 6°C by 2070 with increased heat stress frequency as well as decreasing rainfall over most of Australia. Australian agriculture will face challenges associated with climate change adaptation, as well as mitigation and abatement, since agriculture accounts for 16 per cent of the net national emissions of greenhouse gases, generating 60 per cent of all methane and 85% of all nitrous oxide emissions in Australia. In this context, novel transformational genetics in the form of GM crops and pastures clearly are expected to be part of the solution.

 GMO Compass: Critics would say that those transgenic plants are designed to cover up agronomic mistakes, like cultivating wheat under simply unsuitable soil and climatic conditions. What is your response?
"A most effective way to take innovation to agricultural practice is in the form of genetics, in the form of seed for the farmer."

 

 
German Spangenberg: Every plant genetics requires appropriate agronomy to maximise its potential. Similarly, transformational genetics can enable enhanced adoption of desirable agronomic practices. These include herbicide-tolerant GM crops that enhance opportunities for adoption of low tillage agriculture. Needless to stress that a most effective way to take innovation to agricultural practice is in the form of genetics, in the form of seed for the farmer. It would thus seem sensible that a wheat grower – with crops exposed to the vagaries of weather – be offered a choice of novel genetics in wheat with 20 per cent yield-enhancement potential under drought conditions.

GMO Compass: So, would you say agricultural biotechnology is indispensable to cope with the challenge of a worldwide growing demand for food, feed and energy?

"Demand for milk and meat is expected to more than double by 2050, largely fuelled by population growth, urbanisation and income growth in developing countries during the coming decades."

 

 
German Spangenberg: It is expected that in the next two generations the world will consume twice as much food as consumed in the entire history of humankind, if we consider that the world population is predicted to increase to 8 billion people by 2030 and to 9 billion people by 2050. By 2020 the global population is projected to consume 120 million tons of meat and 220 million tons of milk above the consumption levels of a decade ago. An additional 290 million tons of cereals are likely to be used annually as feed by 2020. Demand for milk and meat is expected to more than double by 2050, largely fuelled by population growth, urbanisation and income growth in developing countries during the coming decades. This represents a massive global increase in demand for food, particularly food of animal origin. Thus, a need exists for the production of more food and feed - but in a resource-constrained manner, that means with less water, with less arable land as well as with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Let me illustrate the magnitude of these challenges with the example of water. Worldwide, 70 per cent of all water is used for agriculture; water consumption has doubled during our lifetime; still, 1.3 billion people do not get enough drinking water and this number could double by 2025. Let’s reflect now on energy as another global driver of change.

Climate change: Less wheat. Drought and other unfavourable climate conditions have led to declining cereal harvests in many countries. The State of Victoria in Australia has also been affected. There, agricultural research is focusing on genetic engineering to develop new drought-tolerant wheat varieties.

World primary energy consumption grew on average by 2.1 per cent per year over the last 30 years and over 10 billion tons of oil equivalents of primary energy are consumed per year. Global energy consumption is projected to grow from 9.0 gigatons of oil equivalent in 2001 to 22.2 in 2050. Bioenergy is being targeted as a contributor to global fuel supplies, partly displacing fossil fuels – which currently account for 80% of world energy consumption – in the decades ahead. Needless to stress that a sustainable bioenergy development would be to follow the long-term strategy of decoupling the biofuel and food industries. The next generation of biofuels thus primarily would be required to come from non-food sources and be produced from dedicated bioenergy crops such as perennial grasses that are low-input, water and nutrient-efficient – and are not competing for arable land for cropping – and from by-products of other human activities. If we reflect on the challenge of meeting a worldwide, growing demand for food, feed and energy, we cannot afford not to adopt powerful new technologies and innovation in agriculture. In this context, the development and adoption of GM crops is indispensable.
GMO Compass: What other enhancements of food or feed crops is your research team working on, and what advances have been achieved?

German Spangenberg: In addition to research and development in GM wheat for drought tolerance, our R&D programs also target functional genomics and transgene-based molecular breeding of GM wheat for broad and durable fungal disease resistance; GM forage grasses for enhanced nutritive value and digestibility; GM forage legumes with enhanced virus disease resistance; GM forages, GM wheat and GM canola for enhanced yields; and GM forage grasses for improved human health outcomes and others.
Specifically, we have developed GM perennial ryegrass with modified fructan biosynthesis for increased nutritive value and energy content and GM tall fescue and perennial ryegrass with modified lignin biosynthesis for enhanced herbage quality and dry matter digestibility. By the end of 2008, we will establish Australia’s first field trial with these GM forage grasses, which would allow us to evaluate the world’s largest number of GM forage grass lines under field conditions.
We have also developed GM perennial and Italian ryegrasses with down-regulation of the two main pollen allergens for public health outcomes. We already have successfully completed the world’s first field trial with this hypoallergenic ryegrass lines.
In addition, we have developed the world’s first GM white clover for resistance to alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV), which we have field-evaluated over the last decade. We expect to establish final research field trials of advanced GM lines of this AMV resistant white clover in 2009. We have further developed a yield enhancement technology (LXR technology) that we are evaluating in GM white clover, GM wheat and GM canola, with first field trials of LXR white clover already undertaken.

GMO Compass: Could you elaborate a little bit on the environmental and consumer benefits you expect from these plants?

German Spangenberg: Let me elaborate on two examples of GM forage grasses and their potential environmental and public health benefits.
We have developed GM forage grasses, namely perennial ryegrass and tall fescue, with modified fructan and lignin biosynthesis for enhanced herbage quality for ruminant livestock production and for reduced greenhouse gas emissions per unit of animal produce. These GM grasses thus are expected to provide not only productivity gains (that means, increased animal productivity) but also environmental benefits from a per-unit reduction of enteric methane emissions. This is relevant if we consider that globally, the single largest source of methane emissions is enteric methane from domestic ruminant livestock. Enteric methane is produced by fermentation in the rumen by methanogens. It has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere and higher global warming power, being 21fold more potent than carbon dioxide. In addition, methane emissions represent a significant loss of energy for animal production – as example, for a dairy cow that produces between 90 and 140 kg methane per year, that would be equivalent to 24 to 38 grazing days of energy lost per animal.
The plant gene technologies and methodologies that we have developed to modify lignin and fructan biosynthesis in a targeted manner in the key forage grasses of world’s temperate grassland agriculture, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue, are also applicable to other grasses, such as warm-season C4 forage grasses for livestock production. They are applicable as well to dedicated bioenergy perennial grasses to be used as feedstocks for lignocellulosic bioethanol production.
I referred to our R&D program on the development of GM ryegrass with down-regulation of the two main pollen allergens, Lol p1 and Lol p2, for enhanced public health outcomes. Ryegrass is a major source of pollen allergens that trigger hayfever and seasonal allergic asthma. These afflict up to 25 per cent of the population in cool temperate climates around the world; with grass pollinosis having significant public health impact.

 GMO Compass: You received your Ph.D. in Heidelberg, Germany, worked as an assistant professor in Zurich, Switzerland, than moved to Australia in 1995 to develop the Victorian plant biotechnology research centre in Melbourne from scratch. Would you consider your research work possible under the critical attitude Europe shows against agricultural biotechnology?
"There is a risk when societies - manipulated by irrational fear - become technophobic."

 

German Spangenberg: It is undeniable that early access to and investment in technology provide us with better tools. These are instrumental in unleashing creativity, supporting innovation, creating knowledge and building the needed capacity to exploit this knowledge for societal benefits. This is no different for agricultural biotechnology. There is a risk when societies - manipulated by irrational fear - become technophobic and thus create disincentives for innovation and for adoption of new technology hindering economic, environmental and other societal benefits that would be otherwise accrued. Considering the challenges - referred to earlier - of meeting a worldwide growing demand for food, feed and energy in a climate of change, it is imperative that, globally, we find the wisdom to allow this powerful technology to flourish and that choice be provided for farmers to adopt it.

GMO Compass: Professor Spangenberg, thank you very much for the interview.

 

 


An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

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