A COMMERCIAL genetically modified (GM) wheat product could still be a decade away from hitting the marketplace.
InterGrain chief executive officer Tress Walmsley told last week's Pastoralists and Graziers Association convention that while it was impossible to know the timeframe of every research and development organisation, the larger research groups still had a long way to go before a GM wheat product would reach the market.
"It might still be 10 years away before we have a product but there are a number of things our industry needs to start doing straight away," Ms Walmsley said.
In her address, Ms Walmsley reminded attendees that GM technology was a large investment.
"People talk in the order of between $50 million and $100 million to bring the first wheat trait to market," she said.
"On that basis it is unlikely that it will be an Australian-owned approach, this is going to need the whole international community to work together.
"Things like the tri-party agreement between Australia, Canada and the US is a really solid fundamental step for us to take."
Ms Walmsley said although research was about 10 years off achieving a biotech trait, there were still a number of improvements that were happening through conventional breeding at present.
"Our target in introducing that non-biotech technology is to double genetic gains," she said.
"So we should start to see the value of that coming through in the next 10 years.
"Beyond that, when we look at corn and soy in the US, they have brought biotechnology in as well on top of throughput traits and they have been able to get genetic gains of more than three per cent.
"So that is the goal we are working towards."
Ms Walmsley said industry needed to establish what traits were needed in the Australian marketplace, which would be largely done by the companies bringing the product to market.
"Are the traits that are immediately available actually traits that Australia will get value out of?" she said.
"When you go out and talk to different growers you get different responses.
"One that most farmers ask is will we have Roundup Ready wheat.
"There is a difference in opinion around that, some growers want that trait and some growers don't want that trait.
"It is about starting to do the research to work out how that fits into the Australian farming system."
Ms Walmsley said InterGrain was yet to launch into biotechnology.
"People will often ask us why Monsanto are a part shareholder of InterGrain," she said.
"But let's say Monsanto traits come to the market first, there is a scenario the Monsanto traits they are working on need to be put into Australian-adapted germplasm.
"If they put those traits in American germplasm then it just won't work.
"We are focused on using our current conventional breeding methods to make sure we've got the best broadly adapted high yielding germplasm, so that when we've actually got traits that we want to take to market, we can put it into very solidly performing germplasm for the Australian environment."
Ms Walmsley said there were decisions to be made at the industry level as to whether Australia wanted to have the technology at the same time as the US and Canada.
"At the moment we have Wheat Quality Australia (WQA) classification system," she said.
"That process requires us to do three years of field trials to get a quality classification.
"It's unfeasible to think we could do this classification trial work when the trait is still regulated, because in WA we are talking 18 different trial sites to ensure we get the one classification result each year."
She said one option was to take the variety through, the trait would be deregulated and then industry could embark on quality classification work.
"If we do that then the growers won't get the line for another four to five years. That is a big delay for Australian grain growers looking to have access to that technology," she said.
Alternatively, Ms Walmsley said there were two other options that could speed up the delays in GM wheat meeting the marketplace.
"One is if it's a really good trait that the growers want to access and there is a yield improvement then we could use it as a feed, growers could get it at the same time as their international competitors and then over time we would look to get the classification at the end," she said.
"The other way is to go to WQA and ask whether we could do equivalency testing.
"Basically when you insert a gene, providing it is not a quality gene, but a disease gene, then it shouldn't have impact on the other genes in that construct.
"Let's say we put our GM trait into Emu Rock, so we would have non-GM and GM Emu Rock.
"We could argue that by demonstrating for just 12 months there is no quality difference between the two it would therefore pick up the classification of Emu Rock.
"That would enable us to take it back one or two years or we could even contemplate doing that in the regulated phase."
Ms Walmsley said industry would also have to work out the best way to share values.
"Given the fact it costs between $50m and $150m, how will the plant breeder get money out of this, the trait owner and how is the grower going to get money," she said.
"Will we do that through an end point royalty system, or trait fees, if we have no farmer-to-farmer trading, do we have a seed production industry that could supply this level of seed every year?"
Ms Walmsley said industry also needed to establish an adventitious presence level for wheat.
"GTA have just convened an industry group, the first meeting of that is happening this Thursday," she said.
"That is the first part of Australian industry coming together to start preparing for some of these things."