Each year, our people create and test millions of potential new crop varieties; but only a very special few make it to release.
What do we do?
For a variety to be considered good enough for AGT to release to growers, it has to pass one simple, but demanding question: “If we release this variety, will farmers and consumers be better off?"
To answer that question, we spend around 10 years intimately evaluating the nuances of each potential new variety. How well does it yield when it’s too hot? What happens if it is grown in soil that is constrained by boron or acid? Does it bake into a nice loaf of bread? How well does the barley malt make beer? Question after question is answered until we get to the point where we decide if the variety is fit for release. Then, and only then, does all our hard work make it into the hands of farmers and consumers.
And when it does, we are reminded that what we do has real world impact on real people – that’s why we do what we do.
How do we do it?
Varieties are developed in three phases.
First, new genetic combinations are made by crossing one variety with another. For example, we might be aiming to combine high yield with elite quality, or maybe better disease resistance.
Then, in the second phase, the potentially new varieties are encouraged to in-breed naturally so that when we release a variety for farmers to grow, it stays true to type (once a variety is released it must pass stable genetics down to the next generation, year after year).
In the third and most critical phase, varieties are tested for multiple years, including more than a 100 different environmental conditions, and are exposed to the majority of stresses and diseases that they are likely to encounter in a farmer's paddock. Their end use quality is also evaluated rigorously to make sure that the variety we choose to release to growers has the attributes needed to deliver additional value. Over all, we plant, manage and harvest more than 380,000 yield plots per year.
Why are science and technology so important to us?
Farmers routinely face constant increases in cost of production while commodity prices remain static, or even decline. By providing varieties with higher yield, improved quality, or better disease resistance, we can help to relieve some of this burden; and innovation is fundamental to this. Adopting new and novel scientific methods, or adapting new technologies to suit our objectives, helps us to continually improve and in turn, deliver greater value. Behind the scenes, we have been piecing together lots of different technologies that we think in combination, help to drive cutting edge plant breeding programs.
Until recently we prepared the seed for all of our field trials by hand. Dipper by dipper, seed by seed. We now use robotic seed packers. Seed is loaded into planting magazines at precisely the right seeding rate, adjusted for each variety. Field plots are arranged in sophisticated statistical designs, ensuring that every yield plot in every experiment returns the highest quality data, meaning that we have a better chance of finding the best performing varieties.
Precision technology has been fully embraced by Australian grain growers, and we have followed their lead by applying the most up to date technologies to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our plant breeding operations. Gone are the days of white pegs, tape measures and prisms to ensure accurate field trials. We now use GPS guidance, with 2cm accuracy, meaning we can plant more field plots per day with much greater precision.
Rates of genetic gain in breeding were once seriously limited by the biology of crop plants. In Australia, winter cereal plants flower in the field in spring, and therefore breeders of the past could only undertake crossing at one time per year, when the plants were reproductively ready.
Climate and light controlled greenhouse facilities now enable us to make new genetic combinations all year round. No more crossing in the field, once a year, with the flies, wind and dust. More crosses each year means faster genetic gain for farmers. Combined with DNA based selection (a breeding technology most easily undertaken on plants growing under controlled conditions), we can identify elite varieties sooner and get them into the field to see how they handle the real world.
The early Australian plant breeding pioneer William Farrer began making wheat crosses not far from Canberra in the late 19th century. But it wasn't until the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered about 30 years later, that the science of genetics was formally applied to plant breeding. With the structure of DNA uncovered by Watson and Crick in 1953, our science began to mature, and since then our knowledge has snowballed. The application of DNA based genetic selection is now a core of our activities.
We have been world leaders in the pragmatic application of DNA based selection (using molecular markers) in plant breeding. We have completely redesigned our breeding strategies to better leverage the benefits of this new technology. Things have changed incredibly in a short space of time, and we are very excited by the speed and progress in the application of this technology in our plant breeding programs.
Our plant breeding experiments inundate us with data. Tens of thousands of potential new varieties, hundreds of thousands of observations from the field, and millions of DNA sequence variants makes a job with AGT a perfect occupation for people who like to find patterns in complex data. Advanced bioinformatics, statistical and database tools are used to help tease out meaningful conclusions from a sea of possibilities. These tools, combined with efficient logistics management and a talented team who collect this wealth of data, help us to meet our purpose; to identify that special variety that makes real world differences to the lives of Australian farmers and global consumers.