Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology, Food & water | Australia, Asia

17 February 2016

With support from policymakers, Australia could significantly grow the genomics industry, writes John Rivers.

We have heard about the government’s ‘Ideas Boom’. How about making ideas ‘bloom’? With the right policies, Australia could reap the rewards of an agricultural and environmental ‘genomics revolution’.

Many talk of a ‘genomics revolution’ in medicine, with tailor-made care for patients based on their genetic information. Similar advances could be made in Australian farming and environmental conservation. For farmers and consumers, this would mean growing and eating better. Our food supply would be more resilient, with crops specially adapted for their environments. The environment would benefit from re-planted vegetation best-suited for particular areas.

To get there, Australia needs policymakers that understand genomics science and can support relevant research, implement policies that accelerate genomics technology adoption, and promote growth of a genomics industry.

Genomics is the study of an organism’s genetic information, contained in DNA. Using advanced DNA-sequencing technology, we can rapidly determine the genetic variation between different crop varieties. We can then apply powerful computing techniques to determine which genetic variations are responsible for changes in plant performance. We then use this information to predict desirable crop varieties. We call this ‘genomic breeding’.

More on this: Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will require much more than just producing extra food | David Barling & Jessica Duncan
Genomic breeding creates profitable opportunities for farmers, and higher-quality, healthier food. Genomic breeding differs from older breeding efforts because we can understand the function of gene combinations, not just individual genes. This is important: many appealing plant qualities, such as fruit fragrance and bread flour quality, result from several genes acting together. We can use genomic breeding to develop attractive crop varieties much more effectively.

Agricultural genomic breeding is already happening. South Australian researchers applied genomic breeding to bread wheat and identified genes linked to dough quality. This work could give our wheat exports a competitive edge by making them more suitable for particular end-products, such as pastry or Asian noodles. Profitable niche crops, many of which have not been subject to previous breeding efforts, would also be ‘ripe’ for accelerated improvement.

Genomic breeding can also help climate change adaptation by comparing crop varietal performance and environmental data. Climate-adapted crops would be a boon to Australian farmers and those in developing countries, many of whom are growing crops unsuited to their climate/agronomy.

Conservation would also benefit. Natural plant populations and surrounding ecosystems often collapse when habitats are fragmented. These isolated populations, with limited genetic diversity, are vulnerable to sudden environmental changes.

Using genomic breeding, we can identify endangered plant varieties with the ‘right stuff’ for a given environment, just as we would for crops. For example, genetic isolation may have left a eucalyptus population in a drought-prone environment without the genetic variation necessary to adapt. Genomic breeding allows us to identify drought tolerance in other populations, and re-introduce this diversity, making the population more adaptable and resilient.

Australia’s genomic breeding potential is tantalising. How do we get there? Continued (preferably increased) government support is a no-brainer. But, policymakers need a deeper understanding of the science. Genomic breeding is not just DNA. Scientists need to understand the environments plants are growing in, by using advanced imaging, drones and satellites. We also need new tools to measure desirable plant qualities, be they crop yield, grain nutrition, or vegetable shelf-life. Government should work with farmers and scientists to fund initiatives that will best support further innovation.

We also need to accelerate genomics adoption and commercialisation. To help shift farmers toward profitable value-added crops, government could fund trials. Government/grower co-funded research and development corporations could also help find new markets for such crops. Drought and climate change support could be tied to adoption of climate-adapted crop varieties, and/or value-added crops that improve farm viability. This would complement existing agricultural innovation programs.

Conservation also needs to be on science’s cutting edge. Revegetation usually follows a ‘local seed is best’ doctrine. This may not restore the optimal mix of plant varieties for a given area; it might merely reintroduce the same vulnerable populations that died out before. Governments should link conservation groups with scientists to determine optimal plant varieties for particular environments.

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Creating a genomic breeding workforce is perhaps the biggest challenge. Education is crucial. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to meet some year 11 students attending the National Youth Science Forum. No students were interested in plant or agricultural research and only one planned to study environmental science.

Genomic breeding needs people trained in biology, chemistry, mathematics, computing and many other sciences. We need to inspire such individuals to work in agricultural and environmental industries by convincing them such work is as profitable, skills-based and exciting as other careers. And we need more Australians studying science overall.

We also need a genomics industry for these students to graduate into. There are exceptions, but Australia’s agricultural and environmental genomics research happens in universities and the CSIRO. We need to link industry and academia, and promote private genomics investment. This will encourage Australian genomics researchers to stay and build their careers and will give us much-needed experience turning research into innovation.

I am excited by the genomics revolution. We Australians are blessed with the tools to exploit its opportunities: a rural heartland and clever countrywomen and men. With the right policies, we can combine these assets and enjoy abundant, high-quality farm produce whilst preserving and improving some of the world’s most beautiful natural environments.

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