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Researchers on international hunt for 'climate change-resilient' grains

Lydia Burton and Amy McCosker, Friday July 19, 2019 - 19:30 EST
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John Cameron is in his second winter season in a row where he hasn't been able to put a crop in on his farm near Toowoomba. - ABC

Researchers are scouring the planet for drought and heat-resistant crops as many Australian grain farmers face another failed winter season.

The forecast for the 2019 winter grain harvest is down considerably, with important growing regions like southern Queensland missing their third crop in a row.

Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) northern panel chair John Minogue said ongoing dry weather had already created a shortage of domestic grain.

"The southern part of Australia, South Australia and Victoria seem to be OK … but then there's a big gap from around Wagga, all the way through to about Emerald so the entire east coast of Australia needs a good solid two inches," Mr Minogue said.

"Western Australia had a very late start, but it's got quite wet for them over there, so they're off and running quite well.

"We're down a long way, and have been having to import from Western Australia to supply the domestic users in the east coast of Australia."

Scientists are forecasting the dry weather will continue because of climate change — an issue that was keeping many farmers awake at night, according to Mr Minogue.

"They're very good at adapting to that variability but it's really trying their skills at the moment because there's going to be a lot of extremes," Mr Minogue said.

"I think the reality is that Australian farmers are going to have to squeeze every last kilogram out of every millimetre of rainfall that we get going forward."

The international search for climate-proof grains

The GRDC said it had researchers all over the world looking for crops that would flourish in difficult conditions.

Mr Minogue said the organisation had spent a large chunk of its $180-million yearly budget on finding climate change-resilient crops.

"We've got people in Syria, in Africa, in all of the parts of the world, which have historically had these crops grown for thousands of years," Mr Minogue said.

"We're extracting those plants to see what mechanisms they use to overcome the variability and then adapting it to the Australian crop so that we can become more resilient with our production systems in the changing climate.

"GRDC have got a lot of investments around transpiration efficiency and allocation of carbon and we've done a lot of work on looking at the implications of a higher carbon dioxide level in atmosphere.

"There's also investments around heat stress and making plants more resilient as well as the management of those plants, so that the farmers can actually plant them in a population that will enable them to still get a yield in a in a low rainfall environment."

Mr Minogue said it could take a while for the crops to be available to farmers, but he knew the clock was ticking.

"Breeding takes a long time and, as a grain grower myself, I'm more frustrated than anyone to get these things on the ground," he said.

"You'd like to be optimistic and think you'd have some of these germplasm in five years.

"They start with 50,000 lines and will whittle on down to about five lines in five years, there's a huge selection process some of the selection tools they're using now with modern technologies is speeding up that process, but it still does take a long time.

"But I know all grain growers are waiting anxiously to get this is germplasm so they can then get it implemented into their program so that they can adapt to the changing climate."

Making ends meet in the dry

Southern Queensland grain farmer John Cameron said his district had not received its average rainfall in years, meaning many in the area had not been able to plant a crop for the second winter in a row.

That is after two dreadful summers — making it two years of bad seasons and failed crops in a row, which Mr Cameron said was unheard of in his area.

"This is starting to make new history — I've been farming in the area for 30 years and up until now, the old timers told me that they'd never missed a winter or summer crop," Mr Cameron said.

"Where we are now is really the last two summer crops have been below average, you know, at best probably 20 per cent of our long-term averages.

"And the last two winter crops we haven't actually planted and the majority of the district hasn't had a planting opportunity either."

Mr Cameron, who farms at Bongeen — between Cecil Plains and Toowoomba — said the drought was starting to take its toll.

"We're about halfway through the year — I haven't recorded 100 millimetres of rain yet on this farm for this calendar year, and we should be over 300 to 350 millimetres at least by now," Mr Cameron said.

"Normally at this time of year [winter] we would have between 400 and 500 hectares of wheat in, it would be looking nice and green and we'd be feeling quite happy with ourselves … currently, the seeds are still in the silo, the planter is still in the shed and the diesel is still in the tank.

"I would estimate that less than 5 per cent of the district has crop in the ground.

"It's really frustrating … we're trying to feed and clothe Australia and the world, but right now we're probably not doing a very good job."


© ABC 2019

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