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New grain variety opens up possibilities for Australian farmers

Plants that are the staple food of some animals can be deadly to others. Many plants have properties that lie somewhere between the extremes of toxic and safe. Vetch is one of these.

Common vetch is useful to farmers as a versatile nitrogen-fixing crop in cereal crop rotations. The plant grows particularly well in southern Australia and has also been used as feed for cattle and other ruminants for many years, but its seeds contain about 1.1% of a known nerve toxin that is harmful to monogastric (single stomach) species such as pigs and poultry.

Now, a team of Adelaide University scientists led by Dr Max Tate at the Waite campus, has successfully produced a low toxin white-vetch grain that has offers considerable health benefits and economic possibilities.

Details of the new variety, which has the potential to improve marketing opportunities for the grain, will be released in a talk on January 31 at the 10th Australian Agronomy Conference in Hobart.

"Classic Mendelian plant breeding techniques have allowed us to reduce the toxicity of the grain by nearly two thirds, to 0.4%," Dr Tate explained. "We have used a rapid new selection procedure to produce a series of easily recognised, white seeded varieties which cannot be confused with red lentils; a completely different plant," he said.

In the past, these red lentils have caused more than a few problems. Dr Tate earned an international reputation in the 1990s when he voiced his concern at the export of a toxic Australian feed vetch as a cheap substitute for food grade lentils. According to Dr Tate, such exports to third world countries had the potential to cause serious health problems.

Exposure of the vetch/lentil substitution issue stalled the vetch grain export industry in 1993, with import bans imposed by India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In 1998/99 another outbreak of orange vetch exports from Australia caused Sri-Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh to ban their imp
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Contact: Dr Max Tate
mtate@waite.adelaide.edu.au
618-8303-7227
Adelaide University
29-Jan-2001


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