Issues Magazine

Australian Plant Genetic Resource Collections and Global Food Security

By Tony Gregson

Better investment in and coordination of our plant genetic resources centres can benefit both global food security and rural Australia.

Australia’s plant genetic resource collections are critical to the productivity increases that are so necessary to continue the growth and prosperity of Australia’s rural sector. In this, the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity, and with the meeting of a group of international and Australian specialists and advocates earlier this year for the Crawford Fund’s annual conference, “Biodiversity and World Food Security: Nourishing the Planet and its People,” it is pertinent to understand the current status of our own collections and whether we can improve arrangements in order to increase their usefulness to both Australia farmers and to the global scientific and agricultural communities.

In the early 1980s the Commonwealth and state governments established a network of six plant genetic resource centres (PGRCs) located in Tamworth (Australian Winter Cereals Collection), Horsham (Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection), Biloela (Australian Tropical Crops and Forages Collection), Adelaide (Australian Medicago Genetic Resource Centre), Perth (Australian Trifolium Genetic Resource Centre) and Canberra (Australian Indigenous Relatives of Crops Collection).

Over the years, the PGRCs have been reviewed many times, but few of their agreed recommendations have been implemented. The basic issue is one of responsibility and funding, and the extent to which PGRCs can be regarded as a public good.

A 2007 cost–benefit analysis concluded that there was support for ongoing public investment in the conservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, although the conservative benefit split was 87% industry good and 13% public good. Nevertheless, strong government and industry support is clearly necessary to maintain viable collections.

Presently, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (RDC) provides the only industry contribution – to the grains collections. No RDC supports the pasture collections, and this tragic situation is slowly getting worse with a withdrawal of government funding underway. The RDCs, which represent industries that rely on pastures (wool, meat, dairy etc.), need to reassess their support for their collections because improved germplasm based around these collections will be essential for their long-term viability.

Australia must get its own PGR collections in order, with secure funding and organisation. Various models have been proposed for a national system, from the National Genetic Resource Centre idea with some rationalisation of facilities, to being coordinated by CSIRO in the national interest, to a single centre, or even depending on other national/international gene banks for germplasm. Alternatively, our own collections could be sent offshore along the lines of the Nordic gene bank.

Despite the significant benefits to industry through improved varieties of grains and pastures, there is support for a 50–50 government–industry funding model for a national system. This would require the GRDC to continue its funding of the grains collections and other RDCs to also contribute their fair share for the other relevant collections.

Assuming that adequate funding is in place, two further things need to happen.

First, there needs to be a national coordinator appointed to be the Australian focal point for our collections, who can serve organisational, management and advocacy roles.

Second, there needs to be a national database in place using the new PGR standard – the Germplasm Resource Information System Global – which is compatible with the international crop information system and supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Bioversity International, the two international bodies with key oversight of the world’s plant genetic resources and related international policy. Australia needs a national database to provide the gateway for the global PGR network and thus make it easier for other countries to gain the benefits of what Australia has to offer, in the same way that we have benefited so much and for so long from other countries’ germplasm.

Also, there is no uniform “accounting system” or authority for Australia’s implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture because most of the collections are held by the states. The treaty is the cornerstone of global germplasm exchange, so it is essential that we play the game because all of our food crops (except macadamia nuts) have been imported to this country.

Australia has no material in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, yet we support the trust that established it and the vault with public money through AusAID and GRDC. Australia is entitled to place germplasm there, and because we do have unique material it should be there as a back-up.

Australia has unique plant genetic resources including but not limited to wild relatives of sorghum, rice and soybean that have never been systematically collected, analysed or properly documented. This could be a major Australian contribution to the global PGR effort, and could provide novel candidate genes to help broaden the adaptation of crops and thus mitigate the effects of climate change. This could be particularly important given that Australia has many analogue environments for, for example, heat and water stress.

Australia has globally significant forest tree species (eucalyptus, acacias, casuarinas) that are held in a good forest tree centre in Canberra at the Australian Tree Seeds Centre, but it is chronically underfunded. Forestry is almost as critical to human livelihoods as food crops, and it needs much more support. Stronger financial support also needs to be considered for our microorganism, plant pathogen and insect pest collections, all of which are essential to Australia’s status as a vibrant global food producer.

I believe that action on funding, coordination and database development, together with public support for the international treaty and the further collection of our native genetic resources, would make a significant Australian contribution to global food security and help shape the future of our own rural industries and the communities they support.