A NEW research collaboration will prioritise the needs of Australian graingrowers by developing herbicides to combat the growing scourge of weed resistance.
The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and Bayer CropScience announced the new partnership at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday, with federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The two groups signed a five-year agreement along with Mr Joyce, to establish the Herbicide Innovation Partnership, to which GRDC has contributed $45 million.
The new partnership involves a post-doctorate program to help expand scientific know-how among Australian researchers by providing training in advanced industrial research techniques.
GRDC will support the extension of research capacities at Bayer’s global centre of excellence for weed control research in Frankfurt, Germany.
About 40 additional researchers – many to be recruited in Australia – will boost the research facility’s capacity to identify and explore advanced technologies.
A major focus of the project is to provide Australian agriculture with solutions to manage weed control problems including ryegrass, wild radish, feathertop rhodes grass and fleabane - but the research will benefit growers worldwide.
GRDC chair Richard Clark said weeds cost Australian grower growers about $3.25 billion per year and are “our biggest input cost other than fertiliser and perhaps even bigger than fertiliser on many farms”.
“It’s a really significant issue we’re trying to address and resistance to the current range of herbicides is crippling many options that growers have,” he said.
“We need to address resistance issues if we’re going to have a sustainable and profitable industry going forward in the long term and this (new partnership) is the first step in doing that with innovative new herbicides.”
New Australian herbicide options
Mr Clark said the new partnership would see the needs of Australian growers prioritised within Bayer’s research program.
He said Bayer would now do testing on Australian weeds, in developing new herbicide options for use within Australia.
“I think that’s a huge leap forward for Australia,” he said.
“Within Australia we think our grains industry is very large and significant, but globally we are less attractive than Europe and North America and some of those other big grains industries that people like Bayer automatically consider,” he said.
Mr Clark said 11 post-doctoral candidates would be trained in some of the world’s best chemical labs to develop skills and knowledge available to the Australian industry long after the project concluded.
Bayer Global head of research and development Adrian Percy said he was “very excited” about the new agreement with GRDC, which will help his company bring adaptive weed solutions to the Australian market.
“We will be establishing with GRDC 40 new positions in our chemical research laboratories in Frankfurt in Germany,” he said.
“This is an attempt to really boost our basic research to find new weed solutions and these new chemists and biologists will work alongside a very substantial group of chemists and biologists that have already been working there on these solutions for many years, and in fact we have a very strong track record in that area.”
Mr Percy said the project collaboration would essentially make Australia a tier-one country for Bayer’s basic screening activities on weed resistance research.
“Basically we will boost our early research into new herbicide modes of action and will bring to the market over next 10 to 15 years adaptive products for the Australian market to help them with weed resistance issues,” he said.
“Resistance is a massive issue in Australia and there have been no new chemistries on the market for a long time but we need them 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.
“Glyphosate is still a tool that can be used but it has to be used with other integrated approaches.”
Mr 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.
“It’s really pleasing to see the GRDC investing $45 million over five years and working with a globally respected research company to ensure our farmers are in the box seat to take advantage of the newest developments in this key area.”
GRDC managing director John Harvey said weeds are the single biggest reason for crop losses globally and in Australia, which has the second-highest number of recorded herbicide resistant weeds in the world, just behind the US.
But Mr Harvey said private sector investment in research to discover chemical solutions to weed resistance had reduced significantly since the 1990s.
He said there’d been no new modes of action in the last 20 years and therefore nothing was in the pipeline for the commercial release of any new products to market for the next eight years.
But Mr Harvey said the new partnership was expected to increase the probability of resistance-breaking technology entering the global herbicide market in the next 10 to 15 years.
Mr Harvey said in the 1990s, when investment in the discovery of new herbicides was reduced, glyphosate was “very dominant” in the marketplace.
He said many companies made the call that it would be a long time before they’d have a product that would actually be 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.”
Investment needed: GPA
Grain Producers Australia (GPA) chairman Andrew Weidemann said Australia was one of the first countries to recognise weed resistance and has implemented programs to try and avert it.
But he said rotational herbicide options are still clearly needed and the new partnership with Bayer and GRDC was “a clear example of a great investment opportunity for Australian agriculture by having another rotational herbicide potentially, should the research find something”.
Mr Weidemann said the actual pool of new herbicide technologies was “very thin”.
“We need this type of investment for Australian growers to promote our weeds in the early screening process by Bayer to find new herbicide solutions,” he said.