Crop biotechnology allows scientists to maintain and improve crop and pasture productivity by modifying plants in ways not always possible using conventional breeding techniques. Crop biotechnology has the potential to produce novel products from plants, improve their nutritional quality, increase productivity and adapt crops to environmental stresses resulting from a changing climate.
Over many thousands of years, farmers have engaged in what plant breeders now call selective breeding, by selecting and saving seed from those plants with the most desirable features. Over time, plant breeding has become more sophisticated, and now involves the deliberate crossing of different varieties or even species, including close wild relatives. Crop biotechnology has allowed the speeding up of traditional breeding approaches, and made it possible to transfer desirable characteristics from almost any kind of organism into plants.
Of the many and diverse applications of crop biotechnology, genetically modified (GM) crops have been adopted by farmers worldwide at rates never before seen by any other advances in the history of agriculture. In 2014, GM crops were grown by 18 million farmers on 181.5 million hectares in 28 countries.
GM crops have helped to improve farming techniques and crop production around the world by increasing plants’ resistance to diseases and pests and reducing pesticide applications, as well as maintaining and improving crop yields.
Australian cotton farmers began using crop biotechnology in 1996 and today almost the entire national crop is based on herbicide tolerant and insect resistant varieties. Cultivation of GM insect resistant cotton has reduced the need for insecticide sprays by up to 85 per cent compared with conventional cotton. Cotton farmers have benefited from an average gain in farm income of over $180 per hectare.
In 2008 Australia began commercial cultivation of GM canola in NSW and Victoria. Western Australia followed suit in 2009. The GM canola currently grown in these states has been modified to make it resistant to certain herbicides, thereby providing farmers with another option for weed management.
Future GM crop traits under devlopment include increased yield, drought resistance, salinity tolerance and enhanced nutrition.
The Australian Government’s Gene Technology Regulator identifes and manages risks to human health and the environment for any GM crop that is grown in Australia for trial or commercial purposes. The food safety regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand undertakes a pre-market safety assesment of all GM food ingredients whether they are produced domestically or imported into Australia. In conjunction with other regulatory agencies where required, this regulation system manages the risks of all GM crops grown or consumed in Australia.