GROWERS in the Geraldton Port Zone will be able to deliver Litmus barley as malt this harvest as part of an InterGrain market development program, but the future of the variety remains in question following the detection of blue aleurone gene earlier this year.
Introduced as a feed variety by InterGrain and Syngenta last year, Litmus was bred to enhance yield potential in regions characterised by acid soils and high aluminium content particularly in the northern and central Wheatbelt.
Grain Trade Australia (GTA) receival quality standards, which are based on historic overseas market requirements, stipulate that no blue aleurone grains will be accepted in Malt barley varieties and permit a maximum allowance of one blue aleurone grain per 100 grains.
Australia is largely committed to supplying barley customers with grain that has a white aleurone.
In a letter to about 140 affected growers earlier this year, InterGrain and Syngenta said while the detection of the gene was a concern and had proven challenging for other varieties in Australia in the past, they believed Litmus could play a role in providing growers with a productive tool for acid soil environments, and there were marketing options within certain areas that would allow the continued cultivation of the variety.
The letter stated that while GTA standards remained relevant to specific markets, they were not demanded by every market, which was supported by the increased overall demand for barley from the Asian region.
Following a meeting with grain handler CBH last week, InterGrain and Syngenta revealed they will provide a market development segregation in Mingenew during the 2014/15 harvest for the delivery of Malt 2 quality Litmus.
Growers outside the Geraldton zone will only be able to deliver the variety as Feed barley to CBH receival sites with BFED1 services during the 2014/15 harvest with flexibility if expressing blue aleurone.
The 2014/15 harvest will be the only harvest where such flexibility will be permitted, as CBH confirmed it would only accommodate the receival of all Litmus grown outside the Geraldton Port Zone this season.
CBH also confirmed that during the 2015/16 harvest, within the Geraldton Port Zone only, the bulk handler will only receive Litmus as Feed barley with flexibility if expressing the blue aleurone trait.
The variety will be available for commercial planting next season, and although it will only be received by CBH in the Geraldton zone, growers from all port zones will be permitted to engage in farmer-to-farmer trading.
It is understood growers were notified of the detection of the gene in March and received a subsidy towards the cost of their seed.
According to InterGrain and Syngenta, the companies made the decision to release Litmus regardless of the discovery of blue aleurone, so it could be trialled by growers in need of its acid-tolerant trait and in the knowledge that marketing and receival options would be made available.
InterGrain CEO Tress Walmsley said the gene was detected in the field at a large scale trial, and because it needed an environmental trigger to occur, it hadn't been detected through the breeding process.
She said growers were notified of the gene "straight away" in March following detection of the gene because they needed to be informed prior to planting.
Ms Walmsley said one of the major challenges was the lack of understanding surrounding the gene.
"There have been some scientific papers published that in very low phosphorous situations the gene is triggered more but other than that we really don't understand it," Ms Walmsley said.
"The issue we have is that the acid tolerance gene is highly linked to the blue aleurone gene.
"To break that gene linkage we would estimate it is going to take us 10-15 years of breeding work before we would have a white acid tolerant variety.
"We've already got materials in the pipeline and the breeders are already actively working on that process but one of the challenges we have in the breeding program is finding an accurate test that actually identifies if the material is blue or not because it doesn't always express."
Ms Walmsley confirmed InterGrain and Syngenta had engaged with an international brewer and were investigating non-sensitive blue aleurone markets and preliminary feedback from international maltsters and brewers suggested physical grain and potential export malting characteristics were good.
But for this to be confirmed, it required the provision of large volumes of grain for further commercial scale testing.
Ms Walmsley did not believe there would be a reason why barley affected with the blue aleurone gene would be sold at a discount to unaffected malt varieties.
According to Ms Walmsley it was traditionally the feed industry that had cited concerns over the presence of the gene.
"Historically Australia has marketed a significant amount of feed grain to Saudi Arabia, and they always like our grain because it is plump and bright white," she said.
"But increasingly for WA, over the last couple of years, we are not utilising that market so much anymore, most of our feed grain goes to China.
"China doesn't appear to have a sensitivity."
Grains Industry Association of WA Barley Council chairman Steve Tilbrook said the council was aware of the situation and had engaged with InterGrain and Syngenta throughout the year.
Mr Tilbrook said the GIWA Barley Council had requested Barley Australia conduct a full and complete study on the implications of the blue aleurone gene in Australian barley at the Barley Australia forum last week.
"We want to know whether blue aleurone is restricting genetic gain by having the white only aleurone policy," Mr Tilbrook said.
"Or are we getting a premium for our product which makes it worth sticking to a white aleurone product.
"There are lots of other countries that do use varieties that possess the blue aleurone gene and we want to know whether we are penalising ourselves for not allowing or receiving advantages by not having it."
Mr Tilbrook said InterGrain and Syngenta raised the issue with the GIWA council earlier, which subsequently raised the issue with Barley Australia.
"I think this is an Australia-wide thing not just a local issue, so they are the right people to work it out, but I'm not quite sure if they will conduct a survey but we have requested they do it properly," he said.
Mr Tilbrook said Barley Australia suggested it didn't have the resources to conduct the survey.
"They are the peak body and if they don't have the resources to do it themselves then they should let someone else from industry find the resources and do the survey," he said.
InterGrain and Syngenta hope to achieve malt accreditation for their other barley varieties LaTrobe and Flinders by March 2015.