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nTwo Australian and three Indian pre-breeding
teams are working to improve crop resilience
to soil toxicities.
nAt stake is productivity on soils laced with
sodium, boron, magnesium, bicarbonate,
aluminium and iron toxicities.
BY MELISSA BRANAGH McCONACHY
T he loss of farmland to waterlogging and
salinity is a major threat to growers in
Australia, while in India environmental
stresses are compromising farmers' capacity to
feed their families.
Dr Tim Setter, principal scientist with the
Department of Agriculture and Food, Western
Australia (DAFWA), says food security is a
concern in India, where researchers are working
with an average farm size of 1 hectare. Issues
related to people and industry security are
foremost in Australia, where the average farm
size under investigation is 10,000 ha.
ACIAR is funding a joint project to enhance
wheat improvement for both countries in the
face of a changing climate where waterlogging,
salinity and associated element toxicities
currently limit production and are likely to
worsen in the future.
Dr Setter is leading a project with five
pre-breeding teams. Multidisciplinary teams
of physiologists, soil scientists, pathologists,
molecular geneticists and breeders from
Australia's University of Adelaide, Murdoch
University and DAFWA are working together with
India's Directorate of Wheat Research, the Central
Soil Salinity Research Institute and Narendra Deva
University of Agriculture and Technology.
They are trialling Indian and Australian wheat
varieties to identify and develop more resilient
parental material for breeding programs.
In one of the activities under the project,
Dr Setter is overseeing one of Australia's largest
salinity experiments at Ballidu, north-east of
Perth. Salinity affects about 2.5 million hectares
of agricultural land in Australia and costs
an estimated A$1.5 billion each year in lost
"Soils in salt-affected areas are variable and
affected by factors other than salinity," Dr Setter
says. "Therefore if we can increase production
on salt-affected soils by selecting the correct
varieties, we have the potential to do something
important for growers in India and Australia.
"But this is not easy because salinity is a
complex stress, which is why decades have
passed with little or no progress in varietal
improvement for salt-affected soils."
Researchers in this project have identified at
least nine different types of salt-affected soils. On
top of this there are two types of salinity: transient
salinity, which occurs when salts in the subsoil
concentrate as the soil changes with season
and rainfall; and dryland salinity, due to rising
watertables bringing salts to the soil surface.
"In dry years Australian growers may leave
saline paddocks fallow," Dr Setter says. "But Indian
farmers don't have that luxury; they have to feed
their family, so there are very different priorities
at play. This has created a testing ground for the
most tolerant grain varieties we have."
TOLERANCE OFFERS OPPORTUNITIES FOR
ACIAR support is enabling researchers to focus
on win-win opportunities that relate not only to
salinity but to other complex abiotic stresses.
Dr Setter says tolerance to element toxicities
and deficiencies offers great opportunities for
wheat improvement under a range of complex
stresses including waterlogging, salinity and
In Australia and India, alkaline soils are often
affected by sodium, boron, magnesium and
bicarbonate toxicities, while acidic soils are
often affected by aluminium and iron toxicities.
As greater tolerance to these background
elements is likely to have major production
impacts, extension of the current work to multi-
location trials is a top priority for growers and
"We are only at the beginning of this
field-based research," Dr Setter says. "But
by conducting research in the field and
characterising target field environments
we have advanced the potential for varietal
improvement by decades.
"As the expression goes: 'It doesn't matter
how fast you run if you're on the wrong road'.
Doing the science in the field is therefore an
important part of this research."
Project researchers are now developing
molecular marker technology to assist selection
of germplasm with improved salt, waterlogging
and micro-element tolerance and productivity.
Dr Setter anticipates that elite germplasm
combining India's best salt-tolerant lines with
highly productive drought and salt-tolerant
Australian varieties will be available for breeders
when the current project ends in 2012.
The germplasm will be used as parental
material to develop new varieties for both
Australia and India. n
PROJECT: CIM2006/177 -- Wheat improvement
for waterlogging, salinity and element
toxicities in Australia and India
CONTACT: Dr Tim Setter, +61 8 9368 3289,
MUTUAL GAINS ON WATERLOGGED, SALINE SOILS
Australian and Indian researchers have united to tackle big
environmental and agricultural threats head on.
PHOTO: EVAN COLLIS
Dr Tim Setter (centre) with DAFWA research officer
Irene Waters and technical officer Rod Bowey at the
Katanning waterlogging research site.
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