Today’s agricultural practices are different from yesterday’s and tomorrow’s agriculture will be different from today’s. Winston Churchill said, “The farther backward you can look the farther forward you are likely to see”. He was emphasising change and improvement.
Today, farmers know they have to look after natural resources, maintain the fertility of the soil, be careful with water use, use chemicals wisely and use the biological advantages of rotation farming.
The difference between yesterday’s and today’s agriculture has depended upon better management, better varieties (as in increased yield, more drought resistant and so on) and a better understanding and response mechanism to market requirements. In turn, these improvements have depended on research and the translation of new knowledge into farming practice. Further research will lead to enhanced management techniques and better product varieties to meet increasingly differentiated specifications of the global markets.
There has never been a time when improvement in agricultural performance has been needed so much. As the world’s population increases, we need to produce more food reliably, with greater empathy for the environment and with more nutritious products. Every person on Earth should have the right to enough food, but it should be good food - as good as we can make it.
Biological research has been transformed by technologies which allow us to comprehend the workings of genes, providing a new understanding of how plants function in their environments and of the molecular and cellular bases of their development. These are areas critical to crop performance and food production.
Understanding genes and their role in crop performance has been important for our cotton industry. The industry has used chemical insecticides recklessly to protect crops from insects which can reduce yields to zero. But the insects soon became resistant to the pesticides. The new technology modifies the crop’s biological software so that it can protect itself against its worst pest. It has enabled the plant to produce specific molecules in its leaves and bolls which kill the major pest, moth larvae. Another gene construct has provided protection against the best “weedicide”, revolutionising weed control in the cotton farming system.
These transgenic cottons put important management constraints on farmers - to preserve the value of the impacts of the new technologies. Yield, quality and profits have gone up, and chemical usage has gone down drastically. The environment has benefited enormously and farmers and farm workers have a better quality of life.
This is not the end of needed improvements, though. There are severe challenges from pathogens, and although our breeders have given us a wonderful quality of fibre, we need to further differentiate our products from those of other countries’.
In a non-drought year, new technologies support a $1.7 billion Australian cotton industry, which exports 98 per cent of products and has a planting seed industry within Australia worth $175 million. Australian varieties of seed make up 30 per cent of the planting seed in the US and the seeds are becoming a significant component of the cotton industry in southern Europe and South America.
Canola is the next crop being considered for transgenic technologies in Australia, but faces state-based moratoria against its introduction. Currently, the advantages being offered through transgenic varieties relate to herbicide resistance and the introduction of high-yielding hybrids. Canadian canola growers have had plentiful yield using transgenic hybrids when compared with Australian canola farmers’ output.
Canola growers and marketers should unite as an industry to get behind transgenic varieties and model their actions on the introduction of transgenic cotton in Australia. The industry, through the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association, played a major role in interacting with the researchers and government regulatory bodies. The transgenic crop was introduced gradually with strict controls of management. Regulatory bodies made decisions based on recommendations from industry committees who examined the performance of transgenics in relation to conventional varieties. These were crucial factors in the successful adoption of the transgenic crop.
There are three major markets for our canola and at least two of these countries have cleared the way for the use of transgenic canola. Other oft-cited dangers of super-weed production have been dispelled by careful research studies. The industry should easily be able to organise itself with necessary segregation procedures.
This is an edited version of a speech given to the National Press Club on July 27, 2005. The full transcript can be found on the Australian Academy of Science website.
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