Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul. A once popular crop in ancient Egypt, but a minor one in Australia today, is set to undergo a revival on the back of groundbreaking research by CSIRO.
The safflower plant, normally considered uncompetitive against canola for production of standard seed oil, now has the potential to become a major crop, not only in production of oils for human health, but as a source of biomaterials.
In a joint project with the Grains Research and Development Corporation, CSIRO scientists have switched off the production of unwanted fatty acids, and maximised levels of desirable oleic acid in safflower.
Joining me in the studio to discuss it is the Deputy Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, Doctor Allan Green. Thanks for coming in, Allan.
Dr Green: Thanks, Glen.
Glen Paul: So how have you made a plant that usually draws little interest from farmers into a potential crop star?
Dr Green: Well the way we’ve done it is to use CSIRO’s gene silencing technology to switch off the conversion of a desirable fatty acid, oleic acid, which is very valuable for industrial products, and we switch off its conversion to the polyunsaturates, which are good for food, but not good for industrial products.
Glen Paul: Hmm. So this is at the less controversial end of genetic engineering, because there’s obviously no adding of genes, you’ve deactivated existing ones, but how much work has been involved in identifying those genes?
Dr Green: Quite a bit. We’ve embarked on the joint project with the GRDC seven or eight years ago, and we’ve recently come to this development in the last two to three years, once we decided to use safflower as our platform crop, and also after we identified oleic acid as a key industrial target.
Glen Paul: So what made you decide to target safflower, rather than sunflower or canola?
Dr Green: Really it was a consultation with the growers themselves. The GRDC surveyed and worked out what would be best as an additional crop for farmers in Australia, and safflower works very well in the northern parts of Australia where they need a rotation crop, but they need it to have a bigger market than it currently has, so changing the product quality to meet new industrial markets was a good thing to do.
Also, because it has a very small production for food, we think we’ll be able to segregate it quite easily for the food and industrial types in production and handling.
Glen Paul: OK, so a couple of options there. And aside from making us healthier, how much impact do you see the safflower having on our dependence on fossil oil petrochemicals as a biomaterial?
Dr Green: It could have a significant impact. We see it as a first stage product if you like, one of the early products that will enable us to make biomaterials using renewable sources of oil from plants, rather than the petroleum and petrochemicals.
Petroleum of course is a finite resource, it’s going to decline and get more expensive, and every time we use petroleum we bring carbon into the atmosphere. By using plants to make those products we recycle the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, so better for greenhouse gas and global warming control.
Glen Paul: Hmm. But what about expense versus net energy output?
Dr Green: Of course all crops require energy inputs to produce them but the gains in terms of the production of the products is greater than the energy input into those crops.
Glen Paul: Now there is always the argument that growing crops for biomaterials could effectively take land away from food production, could this be an issue in the growing of safflower?
Dr Green: Well, I guess in the areas that we think safflower will grow and expand in the future, those are the areas where farmers are really needing additional crops to go into rotation with their current food crops, so we think that’ll be less of an issue in those regions than it would be if we were introducing a crop into our main southern farming systems.
But we will need to grow and produce more product per unit area of all of our crops in the future as demand for food and industrial products goes up, so the challenge really is to get more productive and get more value out of our cropping systems.
Glen Paul: And obviously some of the oils in there would be used for human consumption, so how much do you see is being used for that purpose, as opposed to as a replacement for petrochemicals?
Dr Green: Well it’s interesting that the high oleic oil that we produce could be suitable for food, but in our food oils we need to have a balance of fatty acids for nutrition, so high oleic oils have been developed overseas but they’ve generally been up to 80 per cent, so that you still get the nutritional fatty acids in those oils. It’s completely different for industrial uses – you want as high a purity as possible, so really to push this up to the 93, potentially to 95 per cent of one particular compound is a very big advantage for industrial use.
We wouldn’t think that that oil would be used in food production, although it will be perfectly safe for human consumption.
Glen Paul: So some good oil to be used to replace the fossil oil, or some of it, that we use in the production of petrochemicals, which in itself would then go to help mitigate climate change. But how do you think global warming could affect the production of the safflower itself in the coming years?
Dr Green: It’s very hard to predict of course what the impacts of global warming will be, but safflower’s a crop that grows well in warmer conditions, so we would say that initially the production in northern Australia is well suited to the current climate, and as the southern regions if they do become warmer or more extreme in their temperature conditions, safflower would be more suited for those areas as well.
Glen Paul: So how valuable could this new crop opportunity be potentially for Australian growers, and where might they sign on if they’re looking at being involved in growing it?
Dr Green: It’s still a number of years before we get this to market, obviously we’ve made this breakthrough and we now have to develop varieties and commercialise those, so it’s probably five or six years down the track before farmers can get involved.
But we’re interested in this particular product because we thought it had potential for about 100 000 hectares of additional production for Australian farmers, so it’s a sizeable new crop benefit, and that’s why the GRDC was interested as well. And they see that in the long term these industrial products will also have premium prices, compared to traditional crops, so there’s an opportunity for added value for the growers.
Glen Paul: So you’re a few years away from it becoming commercially available, what needs to be done to get to that point?
Dr Green: We need to develop the best yielding variety we can with that new trait in it, we need to take that to the field and test it, and we need to get approval for release. It’ll be a GM crop, even though it doesn’t have any new transgenes, it has only its own DNA replaced, it will still need approval by OGTR, so there’s a deregulation process to go through as well.
In parallel with that, the GRDC is looking at safflower improvement in anticipation that the crop will be a bigger crop in the future, so we will see some additional work that farmers may be involved in, in looking at improved varieties of safflower.
Glen Paul: Righteo. Well look, it sounds like Cleopatra and the crew were onto something there with the safflower. Thanks very much for coming in and chatting to me about it today, Allan.
Dr Green: Thanks, Glen.
Glen Paul: Dr Allan Green. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.