The five-day Plant Biology Europe International Congress in Dublin at the end of June, 2014 was definitely one of the biggest forums of plant biologists hosting around 1,000 delegates. Despite EU countries having a central place in the forum; scientists from over 50 countries took part with the highest number of participants from Australia.
Scientific topics varied widely in the Congress starting from the academic ‘Plant Metabolism and Development’ and finishing with more popular topics such as ‘Greenhouse Gas Balance and Land Use’. Delegates were diverse as well from students (representing about one fifth) to Professor Christine Foyer (University of Leeds, UK) with more than 300 publications and the highest citation index in Plant Biology. Speakers were selected not only from developed countries but scientists from smaller developing nations as well. The tiny Trinidad and Tobago had excellent presentations about tropical savanna plants. It was not surprising that English was not always the dominating language among delegates in their discussions and in the lobby.
There was a common topic joining each and all in the Congress: Climate Change, Food Security and GM technology in plants. The discussion started with the plenary lecture of Professor Stephen Long (University of Illinois, USA) entitled ‘Meeting the challenge of 70% more food and feed production by 2050. Professor Long mentioned that the growing human population needs more food but crop yield production has currently stagnated reaching its biological limits. As a specialist in photosynthesis, he appointed this biological process a key part of a potential yield jump.
This scientific vision of the challenges in global food security was continued by Professor Charles Godfray (University of Oxford, UK). Global climate changes, poor agricultural production in developing countries and their instability were indicated in his lecture as the unavoidable reality. Professor Godfray presented a simple message that GM plants could be one of the potential solutions for increasing yield production. However, as a top-rated scientist in this area, he emphasized that there is no simple ‘silver bullet’ solution and the GM approach is only one possible way. He further stated that other possibilities had not yet properly been employed, such as a wider usage of biodiversity in wild species, when domestication and hybridisation can enrich their unexploited genetic pool for crop improvement.
Further discussions about GM application for food production were spread among many sessions arising again and again after the oral presentations and in front of as many as 600 posters. Delegates visited different ‘hot-spots’ in the auditoria and in the halls, sharing their visions on GM.
The GM potato was one such ‘hot-spot’, when Dr. Ewen Mullins from Teagasc, Ireland, presented his results. The transfer of gene R, resistance against late blight disease from wild potato to modern cultivars can significantly (if not completely) reduce estimated losses in Europe of more than 1 billion Euros and can minimise the environmental impact with less usage of fungicides. Dr. Mullins noted whilst studying genetically modified potatoes: they are not exactly transgenic but in fact cisgenic plants, where the R gene has been transferred within the same potato genus Solanum. The results showed a big benefit from employing GM-based technologies to secure potato yield potential.
A spectacular presentation was made by Professor Joachim Schiemann (Julius Kuehn Institute, Germany) in which he mentioned a report of the European Academies Science Advisory Council. Specialists concluded that the regulatory framework of GM crops is not supported by scientific evidence, and an alternative regulatory system should focus on the risk assessment of the traits and the products rather than the technology of genetic transformation in plants.
Such conclusions from the experts about the risk management of GM plants can be very important but this topic remains too politicized in different countries. However, it could give a ‘green light’ for practical field trials with GM crops such as potato (described above) and other plants.
Dr. Angela Feechan (CSIRO Plant Industry, Adelaide) presented results of an enormous, long-term project with 16 co-authors about RUN1-RPV1 genes resistant to both powdery and downy mildew in grape. Similar to the potato, the resistant genes were transferred from a wild species of grapevine, making popular cultivars (for example, Shiraz) tolerant to the diseases and no longer requiring fungicide spray. However, their results remain within the laboratory only and are not yet in field trials. This is because a big portion of the wine industry production in Australia focuses on the export of GM-free products.
The results and discussions in the Congress provide scientific background for potential consumers who may or may not want to change their minds about the potential risks and advantages of GM crops.
Not only oral presentations covered the topic of GM plants. About 10% of posters were focused around genetic transformation with studies of transgenic or cisgenic plants. Almost all of these used GM plants to prove their scientific hypotheses, for example: studying gene functions or gene regulations. But some of them demonstrated practical applications for yield improvement of crops particularly in changing environments. Our own poster about Transcription factor TaDREB3 with a stress-inducible promoter genetically transformed into bread wheat demonstrated the improved drought tolerance and increased yield for 6.6-18.9% in cisgenic lines. The poster was popular and our colleagues from different countries asked many questions about the science behind our research and results showing the improvement in wheat yield production.
Despite some inconvenience due to a misplacement of my luggage in the airport, my scientific mission in the Congress was completed successfully with the financial support of a GRDC travel grant.
The question about GM and non-GM crops remains open, especially in polarised public society. Research in the GM area will be presented at the upcoming ‘Plant Biotechnology Congress’ in Melbourne in August, 2014 and is expected to be a ‘hotter’ debate where almost all delegate research will be more or less regarding GM plants. And I agree with Professor Godfrey, who mentioned at the Dublin Congress that “GM should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed”.
As a research scientist, I am personally using both GM and non-GM approaches in plant biology, and this is a typical situation. As a researcher, I cannot see any risk and I have no scientific evidence against GM crops. I look forward to a time when the situation with GM planting in Australia will become clearer, our farmers will be able to grow more productive crops in the changing environment, and customers will be happy with cheaper prices for the same products.
Scientists are completing their part and now it is time for the public to debate and politicians to make a decision.
Yuri Shavrukov, PhD
ACPFG, University of Adelaide