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GM canola adoption in Western Australia – Feb 2014


Bill Crabtree, B.Ag.Sci., M.Sci., Farmer, Conservationist & Agronomist

GM canola has been enthusiastically embraced by farmers in Western Australia and at a record pace.  In 2014 GM canola plantings stand at 210,000 hectares, that is 22% of the WA canola crop.  The plantings  began in 2009 with only 850 hectares planted by 17 farmers under the watchful eye of Terry Redman (then WA Ag Minister). It is now estimated that about 1,000 farmers are growing GM Canola.

This figure may surprise some eastern states onlookers. But most agronomists believe that adoption will continue to increase as better varieties become available.  At the same time farmers have swung over to hybrid varieties.  WA farmers have access to triazine tolerant (TT), imidazolinone tolerant (IT), non-herbicide tolerant (NT) and glyphosate tolerant (RR) canola. 

Farmers are also increasingly adopting hybrid seed genetics due to a 15% yield increase (see http://www.nvtonline.com.au/nvt-results-reports/) over open pollinated varieties. Even in drought years the hybrid varieties increase yields by up to 150 kg/ha.  The increase mostly pays for the extra cost of the hybrid seed.  In WA, Roundup Ready hybrids typically show a 5% yield increase over IT hybrids and a 10-15% yield increase over TT hybrids.  The seed cost of hybrids, no matter which type, is currently $26/kg. For RR varieties there is a $7.20/kg royalty payment for the RR technical user fee.

Western Australia has not had a good experience with IT canola.  This is due to the mostly acidic nature of our soils which leads to risk of residual herbicide carryover.   During the 1980-90’s WA farmers also over-relied on group B chemistry and now both radish and ryegrass are resistant to group Bs.  So WA has had a strong over-reliance on atrazine tolerant canola with inherent-mitochondrial driven yield penalties.  When breeding GM canola in Australia was abandoned in 2003 two adverse impacts resulted.  Glufosinate ammonia tolerant canola (LL) was abandoned by Bayer (it was going to be released in 2003) and RR lines were not advanced.  This meant that the TT canola varieties played catch up.  In 2009 breeding recommenced on RR lines which now consistently out yield both IT and TT lines.

GM canola helps us to manage weeds, particularly herbicide resistant weeds, more easily and with greater herbicide diversity.  It has also reduced our resistance challenges in a similar way to the 17 year Canadian GM canola experience (now 97% GM and over 85% are hybrids). 

The alternative management system to growing GM canola involves a greater reliance on burning crop residues and increased tillage which our farmers are not keen to do. By burning residues and cultivating we would be pouring carbon dioxide into the air through rapid oxidation of organic matter and increased burning of fossil fuels.  We would also lose our mulch over the soil which reduces water evaporation and eliminates soil erosion.

GM canola, in conjunction with no-tillage, helps conserve more water in our dry farming systems - an area  where we are world leaders, at 95% adoption.  These two tools allow us to plant our crops dry, conserve summer rainfalls and survive droughts that have been common in the last 14 years.  There is a $10-40/t price discount for GM canola, however, the extra oil content of the GM varieties compensates for this slightly lower price per tonne.  Indeed, the advantages of growing GM canola are significant to farmers, otherwise the adoption would not have flourished as it has.