Celebrating 25 years of genetically modified crops in Australia

    19 November 2021

    For thousands of years, humans have used different methods like selective breeding and crossbreeding to produce plants with more desirable traits, such as taste and texture, increased yield, pest and disease resistance and resilience, with varied success.

    Many of the food crops we enjoy today are a product of these methods, but achieving these results can be a time and resource intensive process due to lengthy breeding cycles and the inability to achieve the outcomes with precision.

    Enter the innovation of biotechnology – allowing plant breeders to make changes without the burden of time.

    This year marks 25 years since genetically modified crops were first commercially cultivated in Australia. For a quarter of a century these crops have played a significant role in Australian farming systems allowing farmers to radically reduce their carbon footprint and better protect the health of their soil.

    Cotton is one of the most significant and popular broadacre crops in Australia and was the first genetically modified crop to be grown on our shores.

    Since 1996, GM cotton has afforded farmers higher yields and significant environmental gains. GM cotton varieties have skyrocketed in popularity to the point where more than 99 per cent of Australian-grown cotton contains GM traits conferring herbicide-tolerance, resistance to the major caterpillar pest or both.

    The introduction of this GM technology has improved integrated pest management allowing farmers to use pesticides more sustainably. In turn, this better management of pests has decreased pesticide resistance and reduced soil tillage which means less herbicide run-off through soil erosion.

    Throughout the time GM cotton has been grown, yields have been up, but the benefits don’t stop there. GM cotton fields have experienced increased populations of beneficial insects and wildlife, farm worker and neighbour safety has improved, farmers are spending more time with their families because of the efficiencies they’ve gained and labour and fuel usage is down.

    In 2003, licences were issued for the commercial release of two types of GM canola. While some state and territory governments initially established GM-free zones until marketing considerations had been addressed, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have now overturned these decisions and GM canola is flourishing.

    The Incorporation of GM canola varieties into cropping rotations has become an important tool for growers to not only reduce herbicide applications, but to maintain the quality of their soil, avoid pest and weed build up and maximise yield.

    VIDEO: Celebrating 25 years of genetically modified crops in Australia