THE golden age of glyphosate may not yet be over, but the world’s grain growers are on short notice to preserve the chemical’s proven ability to kill yield-robbing weeds, says international authority on herbicide resistance Professor Stephen Powles.
“There are definitely parts of the US, in some of the best cropland in the world, where glyphosate won’t work and won’t kill the big driver weeds which cost farmers money - and it’s the same in some parts of Australia too,” he told Fairfax Media.
“But for many Australian farmers, including on my farm in Kojonup in Western Australia, glyphosate still works.
“For me, on my little farm, and for many other Australian farmers, if you’ve still got glyphosate working you should be doing everything you can to keep it working, because you’ll never get a better chemical.
“Step one is diversity, step two is diversity, step three is diversity.
“When on a good thing, don’t stick to it, and use every tool that you’ve got.”
Professor Powles is the director of the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative at the University of Western Australia. He was in Canberra last week when the new Herbicide Innovation Partnership between the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and Bayer CropScience was unveiled.
The research partnership will see GRDC spend $45 million over five years to support the extension of research capacities at Bayer’s global centre of excellence for weed control research in Frankfurt, Germany.
The program will see Australian weeds prioritised in Bayer’s early research schedule to produce outcomes like new herbicide products, suited to local conditions.
Each of the speakers at the launch, including GRDC chair Richard Clark, said weeds cost Australian grain growers about $3.25 billion a year and were a significant on-farm input cost.
Professor Powles said the $3.25b estimate wasn’t all attributed to chemical resistant weeks – but whichever way you look at it, the losses associated with weeds in grain production are “substantial”.
He said Australia once had the “dubious distinction” of being the number one grain-producing country in the world for weed resistance, but that unwelcome title had now been lost to the US.
“The US has 84 million acres of cropland on which they can’t control one or more glyphosate-resistant weeds,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of experience with resistance in Australia - we know it costs us and our farmers know we need to do something about that, but they also know we need herbicides as part of the solution.”
The GRDC-Bayer partnership will see 40 new positions established in Bayer’s chemical research laboratories in Frankfurt including 11 post-doctoral candidates from Australia focused on weed resistance discoveries.
Mr Harvey said in the 1990s, when a real reduction in investment and discovery of new herbicides occurred, glyphosate was “very dominant” in the marketplace.
He said many companies made the call that it would be a long time before they would have a product that was actually better than Roundup.
“What we probably underestimated was the importance of herbicide resistance and what that would mean,” he said.
“We are now in a position where we need new chemistries desperately - and Australian growers need those new chemistries.
“This (new partnership) is about keeping Australian farmers at the front of global competitiveness - we’re investing to get growers new chemistries they can use on their farm.
“If this project is successful, there will be success fees that flow back to GRDC, and there will be royalties that flow back to GRDC, but the primary driver here is to give growers better technologies so that they can make more money on their farm and reduce their costs of weed control.”
Bayer Global Head of Research and Development Adrian Percy said weed resistance was a “massive issue in Australia”.
He said there had been no new chemistries on the market for a long time, but they were needed in order to “rotate and to be successful in weed management”.
“Glyphosate of course has taken a bit hit worldwide and I think that’s woken a lot of people up in the growing community and the R&D community – we realise we need to find alternatives,” he said.
“Glyphosate is still a tool that can be used but it has to be used with other integrated approaches.”
Professor Powles warned about weed resistance in the US caused by an over-reliance on the “one-in-100-year chemical” due to the advent of Roundup Ready crops like cotton, corn and soybeans in the US, introduced in the mid 1990s.
At the partnership launch, Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said the agreement between GRDC and Bayer was a welcome boost for Australia’s grain farmers with 39 different plant or weed species currently resistant throughout the nation.
“We have done a very good job with our own little form of genetic engineering; we are breeding resistant weeds,” he said.
“So now comes a time when we’ve got to have a substantive investment to deal with that and ensure we get in front of the game again.
“This is exactly the kind of strong partnership in innovative research between government and industry that will keep Australia at the forefront of world grain production and which will ultimately grow our soft commodities sector.”