A new definition of "genetically modified" currently awaiting parliamentary approval could see a swathe of new grasses on the market within three years.
According to Dairy Australia, GM grass offers gains in the order of $800 per hectare per year for farmers. It is no empty promise: the grasses capable of delivering massive increases both in yield and in quality are 10 years old and growing in south-west Victorian paddocks. The roadblocks are regulatory hurdles, dairy processor bans and market acceptance.
For now, those decade-old "classic" GM grasses remain in trial plots tended and measured by DairyBio scientists in the belief circumstances will change.
But not all modification of genetics is necessarily "genetic modification".
Dairy Australia's new managing director Dr David Nation is fresh from the role of DairyBio co-director and said the research body deliberately pursued a type of genomic technology looked upon more favourably by regulators.
Scientists using classic GM technology "cut and paste" or "copy and paste" genes from one plant into another. The zinc-finger genome-editing techniques DairyBio uses, on the other hand, simply "cuts" without introducing anything new to the plant.
"It creates what I call a 'messy cut'," Dr Nation said. "So, when the plant cell naturally repairs the DNA strand, it loses a small number of bases, which are the individual building blocks of DNA.
"That cut-and-repair process changes the function of that gene and gives the opportunity to produce plants with the trait of interest.
"I'm being very specific in describing that process because the government regulator has put a proposal to government to call that method 'not an act of genetic modification'."
Parliamentary approval of this Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) proposal would remove the regulatory hurdle. Still, the problem of market acceptance remains.
A 2017 survey of Australian consumer attitudes commissioned by OGTR shows support for GM technology is slowly growing, although is more readily accepted for medical than agricultural use (see Figure 1).
The surveyed consumers showed little understanding of gene editing. Only 17 per cent said they knew enough about gene editing to explain it to a friend. Even so, more than half (57pc) believed it would "improve our way of life in the future".
The community's gradual warming has not silenced the vocal resistance to GM grasses. Asked about the relative risks of zinc finger genomic editing, Friends of the Earth's emerging tech project co-ordinator Louise Sales pointed to international opposition.
"The European Court of Justice recently ruled that gene-editing techniques such as zinc finger nucleases pose the same risks as older genetic modification techniques and need to be assessed in the same way," Ms Sales said.
"Recent studies have shown that all gene-editing techniques can result in unexpected mutations, which could result in the production of novel toxins or allergens.
"Besides the potential risks to livestock, the environment and human health, there are also important economic risks to consider.
"Key export markets such as Europe regard these techniques as GM and have zero tolerance for the presence of unapproved GMOs.
"The inability to contain GM ryegrasses will jeopardise the ability of farmers to produce a GM-free product."
Fearing damage to international markets, Australian dairy processors require farmer suppliers to keep records declaring their stockfeed GM-free.
In contrast, Australian Dairy Farmers' policy "recognises the potential productivity benefits of GMOs" and "supports farmers' rights to use GM technology where available, and supports farmer choice between the use of GM and conventional technologies".
The ADF also referred to legal and regulatory positions to justify its policy.
"OGTR and Australia's other GMO regulators (Food Standards Australia New Zealand for GM food, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority for agvet chemicals containing GM material and the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for other GM products) have been monitoring these and other GMO initiatives across the world," an ADF spokesperson said in a written statement.
"In each of the cases for commercial growing of GMOs, the OGTR found the weight of evidence demonstrates GMOs are as safe as their conventional counterparts.
"FSANZ also found that gene technology has not been shown to introduce any new or altered hazards into the food supply.
"These positions are consistent with statements from the World Health Organisation and US Drug Administration."
Former Dairy Australia manager of biotechnology and strategic initiatives, then CEO of Agrifood Awareness Australia, and now consultant, Paula Fitzgerald, urged the industry to begin discussions internally.
"There are mixed views towards genetic modification along the dairy supply chain because its benefits and impacts depend on where you sit in the supply chain," Ms Fitzgerald said.
"Those closest to the customer are more aware of consumer concerns. The question is: will the industry be able to have a conversation about GM. If you're a farmer supplying a product, you'd like to think about this as a partnership, particularly given significant farmer levies fund the research.
"It can be done. Today, over 90pc of cotton grown in Australia are GM varieties.
"The grain industry has also grown GM canola since 2008, and more than 30 entities representing the entire supply chain came together years ago to address the challenges.
"They co-operated and they were willing to have the tough conversations. It's essential that the dairy industry has a united approach before any consumer outreach begins."
Dr Nation said the conversation was already underway. Dairy Australia was among the contributors to a report by a trans-Tasman independent expert panel on GM. While that report is not publicly available, Dr Nation said it confirmed DairyBio's target of $800 per hectare per year was realistic and mapped the benefits right along the supply chain.
A pragmatic approach to the GM debate is being taken by a partner in DairyBio's pasture research program, the Royal Barenbrug Group, which is also the parent of local seed company, Heritage Seeds.
Its science and breeding manager, Allen Newman, is quick to distance Barenbrug from GMO grass but stresses the importance of genetic technologies.
"Barenbrug supports using genetic technologies to breed better grass but not to create GMO grass," he said.
"We believe that if we don't help to provide direction to scientists, we're not going to be able to keep up with demands on us.
"We need to be able to lean on technology to develop products in an increasingly challenging climate."
One of those genetic technologies enables a modern twist on an age-old form of breeding: hybridisation.
"Beginning with perennial ryegrass, DairyBio is developing F1 hybrids to increase vigour," Mr Newman said.
"While most corn grown today is an F1 hybrid, it's only been in the last five or six years that scientists have been able to identify the genes that prevent the self-incompatibility needed to create the highly inbred parents needed for an F1 cross."
Traditional selective breeding has also been advanced with genetic technology.
"Genomic selection means understanding genes and phenotypes to predict which grasses will perform best," Mr Newman said.
"Phenotypes are the characteristics of grasses that are a result of genetics and the environment, such as yield, persistence, disease resistance, seasonal growth patterns, quality and the interaction between the plant and endophytes.
"Genomic selection is not genetic modification - all the plants are bred conventionally - but being able to pick the best performers early allows for three times the progress gain.
"In other words, we can make 21 years of genetic gain in seven years. When you consider that 0.5 to 0.7 per cent genetic gain is made each year, the timeframe is very important."D