Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
AusBiotech
ISSN: 1036-7128
1997
Australasian Biotechnology,
Volume 7 Number 6, November/December 1997, pp.369-371

The WA Australian Biotechnology Association Essay Competition


Code Number: AU97051
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Each year the Western Australian Branch of the ABA holds an essay competition open to all year 11 and 12 students in WA to encourage young Australians to increase their knowledge of biotechnology. The competition was sponsored again by Biotechnology International Pty Ltd and Murdoch University and supported by the Scitech Discovery Center. This year's winner was Anna Borowitzka of Perth College, with Jaime Muirhead of Applecross Senior High School and Samuel Cockerill of Scotch College receiving second and third prize respectively. The prizes were presented at a ceremony held at the Scitech Discovery Center by Dr John Hamblin, the director of the Cooperative Research Center for Mediterranean Agriculture.

The Potential Impact of Transgenic Plants on Agriculture in WA

Anna Linnea Borowitzka,

Perth College, Mt Lawley, WA

The issue of genetically manipulated and engineered plants, particularly crop plants, and the potential they have for a positive impact on the agriculture of the planet has been one of the most discussed applications of biotechnology recently. These transgenic plants are plants which have been altered genetically, either through gene transfer or other methods, to produce a plant with traits that will allow it to grow more successfully in its given environment. As Western Australia relies greatly on its national and international crop plant trade as a means of supporting the economy, any advancement in the maximisation of the crop yield and quality would benefit the state as a whole. The recent progress in the development of transgenic plants capable of fulfilling these needs of the industry has revolutionised the possibilities involved in growing crop plants.

The genetic manipulation of plants is concerned primarily with the creation of plants more suited to certain conditions and then, in the long term, the creation of crop plants that are more resistant to insects and pests,, tolerant to herbicides, and plants of a higher nutritional quality. To date, nearly 20 commercial crop plants have been genetically engineered, including maize, rye and soya bean, as well as vegetables like carrots and tomatoes (see Table 1). There is great potential for many other crops to be engineered like these. These crops are resistant to herbicides, pests and insects or disease, all factors which contribute to the depletion of crop yield and crop quality. A successful case study of this engineering in the industry is the use of the new transgenic cotton plant in the cotton industry of Western Australia. The new transgenic cotton plant contains an extra synthetic gene from a bacterium that produces a poison toxic to only a narrow range of insects, including the budworm, a common threat to cotton crops. This gene contains genetic information to make the plant produce the toxin poisonous to the budworm. As cotton farmers apply up to $40 million worth of chemical sprays per year on the crop to combat this problem, the transgenic cotton plant would create a more economical and higher quality product, as well as limiting the detrimental effect that the sprays have on the local ecosystems. A higher yield of these higher quality crops would be beneficial not only to the individual horticulturists, but to Western Australia's export trade as a whole, assuring it a place in the national and international crop trade markets as a high quality, high quantity contender. Applying this technology to other plants such as wheat and lupins, both high quantity export crops of Western Australia, so that they contain the necessary genes for this kind of resistance, would greatly increase the overall yield and quality of the crops, without the addition of extra herbicide and pesticide. (McGregor, 1995)

    Table 1: Present availability of transformation and regeneration systems for crops.

The conditions of the agricultural areas in Western Australia are particularly hard and variable for many crops, with problems such as salinity and drought being regular occurrences in the agricultural areas of the state. With the wealth of knowledge already available on the genetic manipulation of plants with combating problems like pests and disease, the potential for expanding that knowledge to create plants that have improved resistance to drought and salinity can be considered. If this genetic manipulation is possible, the results would be revolutionary to farmers and horticulturalists alike throughout the state. The ability to create plants that would be resistant to such gross problems would bring a radical change to the agriculture industry. Land that is affected by salinity could now be used for plantations, similar to the plantations of salt-resistant eucalyptus already seen throughout the state, and low water areas could now be planted on also. (Persley, 1989)

Through gene transfer technology, transgenic traits can be introduced into plants to improve resistance to disease and pests and to produce higher quality crops. At the moment the development of new varieties of crops can take up to 10 years by using conventional plant breeding techniques. It has been speculated however, that by using genetic engineering, this time would be greatly reduced. Whilst the transformation and regeneration of some plants is extremely variety specific, and only some plant varieties can be manipulated genetically and grown in culture to be used in normal plant breeding programmes, I believe that further research into the manipulation of the plants not yet able to be engineered would be a useful addition to the biotechnology industry, as well as enriching the conventional breeding techniques with new varieties and possibilities.

Whilst there are some very encouraging aspects of this technology, there are some factors we need to consider before embracing it on a large scale. Not all aspects of gene manipulation technology are positive. In a study reported by Dr Jonathan Gressel in Winter 1996 (Anon. 1997), he reported that the engineering of crop plants that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosphate (Roundup) could result in the evolution of "superweeds" that are also resistant to the herbicide. The report stated that if the weeds are continuously sprayed with the herbicide, they can develop a resistance which leads only the strongest weeds to survive. Dr Gressel referred to a recent case in Australia where ryegrass weeds developed a resistance to Roundup after only 10 sprayings of the herbicide.

The gene transfer technology itself may contain inherent problems of a nature that may not become apparent until after the transfer has taken place. In transferring genes from one organism to another, unknown additional genes may also be transferred unknowingly. These accidentally transferred genes could, if they become expressed, cause problems to the crop plant or to the consumer, like allergic reactions not expected from that particular food.

The ethical debate surrounding the introduction of genetically altered plants into general use throughout the world has proved to be a major limiting factor in the distribution of the plants. In order for these crops to truly be successful, they must first get past the standard consumer hesitation and concern regarding the nature of these new crops. Obviously, consumers are apprehensive when it comes to trying any new plant or food that may contain unknown elements. The ethical issues of what should and shouldn't be done to plants for human consumption is also a contributing factor to the public trepidation regarding these plants. In some countries already, the importation and release of certain genetically engineered crops has been delayed or banned. For example, in December of 1996, the European Commission authorised the release of Ciba Geigy's genetically altered maize from the United States onto the European market. Immediately after this authorisation was made, an immense backlash from the Austrian government caused the maize to be banned from Austrian territory, and later that month the French government implemented a similar reform and refused to have the maize imported unless it was labelled. Consequently, the maize has been banned in all EU Member States.

Several plants have been successfully engineered in Australia recently, including cotton and potatoes. However, the Australian government has banned the sale of all food derived from genetically engineered technology until health and safety requirements have been decided on and met. These tough guidelines will strengthen the public perception of the foods and also bring high integrity to the Australian food supply. These safety requirement guidelines should delay the release of any great numbers of transgenic plants in any country until around the year 2000-2005 (Anon. 1997).

As no countries in the world have allowed full release of many species of transgenic plants, it is impossible to say what effect that they will have on the agriculture industry. However, once the necessary guidelines have been decided on for transgenic plant release in Australia, it can be assumed that their release and use in the Western Australian agriculture industry will be inevitable. The numerous benefits for the economy, environment and the industry in general are too tempting for any amount of public scrutiny to diminish. The potential of the technology for the future in creating plants with resistances to salinity and drought is an exciting possibility that would have a great positive effect on the industry. In our state, we rely heavily on the important trade of crops both nationally and internationally, and the potential of maximising production of higher quantity, higher quality crops is enormous. The introduction of transgenic crops that can fulfill these demands is a possibility that, through further biotechnological research and development, is soon to be a reality.

References

Anon. 1997, Canberra Organic Growers Society Inc. Genetic Engineering in the Agriculture Industry: URL-http://www.pcug.org.au/~j allen/coggene.htm (28/6/97)

Conner, Tony, 1993 Agricultural Science, May 1993, "Food Safety Issues Relating to Genetic Engineering of Crop Plants"

Holmes, Bob, 1993, New Scientist, 28 August 1993, "The perils of planting pesticides"

McGregor, Peter (editor) 1995, Todays Technology-Gene Technology at Work, No 3, "Pests and Parasites"

O'Neill, Graeme, 1994, TIME, 17 January 1994, "Dinner at the DNA Cafe;"

Persley, Gabrielle (editor) 1989, Agricultural Biotechnology Opportunities for International Development-Biotechnology Study Project Papers, Chapter 4-Technology Assessment

Smith, John, 1994, Australasian Biotechnology, Vol 4 No 5 (September/October 1994) "New Opportunities in Food Biotechnology"

Watts, Susan, 1990 New Scientist, 3 November 1990 "Have we the stomach for engineered food?"

Copyright 1997 Australian Biotechnology Association Ltd.

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