GM wheat with inbuilt health attributes could command a premium for its growers, an Australian scientist developing the concept suggests.


In an interview with Crops magazine, Bruce Lee, director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Food Futures Flagship programme, outlined the Australian national science agency was investigating traits that could increase yields, boost nitrogen use efficiency or produce grains with health benefits.

In particular, he was researching grains that could provide consumers with foods that impacted positively on lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease, bowel cancer and Type II diabetes.

“The traits raise the amylose content of the starch in wheat from 25 to 70%. This fraction is associated with resistant starch, which is digested in the large bowel, and can have a positive impact on overall bowel health. We hope that diets containing high amylose wheat may reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer.”

Those types of GM wheat were already being tested in field trials in Australia, although the programme had been set back by the destruction of 0.5ha of trials in July by Greenpeace.

“This work could provide the farmer with a value-added proposition, as many of these traits could command a premium,” he said. “This is particularly important for Australia, which relies on export grain. But these traits could will find application in all wheat growing areas, including the UK.”

The full transcript of the interview can be read below.


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Interview with Bruce Lee


What traits are you currently investigating for use in GM wheat crops?

We are investigating a range of traits that have to do with food security, sustainability and health.

In terms of food security we are working on traits that influence yield. We have in our research and development pipeline a trait that is significantly increasing yield and we are currently trialling this in the field. The research is being carried out by the Food Futures Flagship of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) with co-funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

In terms of sustainability we are working on nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). This trait is aimed at allowing the plant to take up nitrogen more efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen applied to the crop without compromising yield. This work is being carried out by CSIRO, Arcadia (US biotech company) and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).

We have a major effort in producing grains with inbuilt health attributes. The aims here are several, including:

1. To provide farmers with an identity preserved value proposition

2. To provide consumers with foods that can impact positively on many of the world’s lifestyle diseases (such as Type II diabetes, heart and bowel disease)

The traits here are high-amylose wheat (HAW), where we have raised the amylose content of the starch found in wheat from around 25% to up to 70%. This HAW fraction of starch is associated with resistant starch (RS). RS is the fraction of starch which is digested slowly in the body. It is not digested in the stomach or small intestine, but in the large bowel, where it can have a positive impact on overall bowel health. We hope that diets which contain HAW may help to reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer. This work is being carried out by Arista (which has shareholdings from CSIRO, Limagrain [France] and GRDC).

We are also looking at raising the overall level of other grain components such as the beta-glucans. Beta -lucan is associated with lowering cholesterol.


Why are these important for Australian agriculture?

The traits are important for Australian agriculture as they assist our farmers in being able to produce more from the available acres, particularly important if current population trends continue and we have to produce more from available acres to feed the growing global population.

It is important that as we grow yield we also look at sustainability, hence the traits on sustainability. Nutrition also plays an important part. To feed the world, sustenance must go hand in hand with food also being nutritious, hence the work on health attributes.

This work on health attributes provide the farmer with a value-added proposition, as many of the grain health traits being developed here at CSIRO will command a premium. This is particularly important for Australia, which relies heavily on grain export (commodity grain). We need differentiators to remain ahead of competitors in the global market.


Will they have a wider benefit for global agriculture and particularly UK growers (assuming consumer acceptance, etc)?

Absolutely. These traits will find application in wheat-growing areas around the world. The UK is included in our projections for market introduction of all of the traits mentioned above. Obviously we will have to backcross them into locally-adapted varieties. Our research efforts at CSIRO are here not only to benefit Australia and Australians, but we play a significant role globally in contributing to food security, sustainability and the health of mankind.


Greenpeace recently destroyed one of your trials. How badly has that set the research back?

This is currently an ongoing investigation so we cannot provide detailed comment. Suffice to say that the trial was compromised and we will have to repeat it. In essence we have lost a year of data from the trial site, which will have to be repeated and may result in a delay of these products reaching the market.


The Greenpeace action shows there is still a battle to be won for public acceptance. Do you think it can be won in Australia, and if so, how, and why?

hile there is still an element of opposition here in Australia, equally, our research shows that there is a committed base of supportive consumers who are being denied the choice of accessing GM products.

We regularly monitor and undertake consumer acceptance studies of the technologies we are introducing, including GM. Our studies indicate that there is only a small percentage that are absolutely opposed to the introduction of GM. There are a number of people that are still sitting on the fence.

We believe key to the technology is having traits that have a direct benefit to consumers, and this is why we have placed so much emphasis on grains with inbuilt health attributes. Once the consumer sees a benefit in the technology, whether it is associated with sustainability or health, then we see far more support.


Finally, when do you think Australian growers could have access to GM wheat (and do they want it)?

We think the earliest Australian farmers will have access to GM wheat is 2019. This will depend very much on how quickly the regulatory process can be undertaken. Since wheat is exported we will have to obtain approval for the product, not only here in Australia, but also in major export markets. and this is a lengthy and expensive process.