IMPORTANT WORK: Sally Norton at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham. Picture: AMELIA CRAFTER

IMPORTANT WORK: Sally Norton at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham. Picture: AMELIA CRAFTER

The globally significant work occurring in Horsham's backyard

Take a deep dive into Horsham's Australian Grains Genebank with leader Sally Norton


The work of Victoria's Australian Grains Genebank is vital to the future success of cropping across the country.


THE Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham, Victoria is one of the largest genebanks in the world holding more than 210,000 seed types.

Sally Norton is the leader of the genebank, which is located at Grains Innovation Park.

Mrs Norton said the genebank was vital to the future success of cropping across Australia, because the seeds stored there were used in research to improve varieties right across Australia.

"We store the seed lines, or building blocks, which are needed into the future for cropping," Mrs Norton said.

"In here we have the history of the seed varieties, all the seeds as far back as the federation wheats from the early 1900s.

"We also have primitive worldwide seed varieties going back potentially tens of thousands of years and wild relatives which are the cousins of cultivated crops."

The Horsham site was originally the winter grains seedbank, with a temperate seedbank in Tamworth and a tropical seedbank in Biloela in Central Queensland.

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"I was leading the tropical crops genebank in Central Queensland and then all three genebanks were amalgamated under a national project in April 2013 and I took on the national leadership role," Mrs Norton said.

"The new facility was opened here in February 2014 and all of the seed from those centres arrived here."

Mrs Norton said the genebank was a one-stop shop for researchers trying to improve cropping varieties.

"We have the seeds here because they are used as parents to create new varieties that are more resilient than older varieties to changing climates and environmental conditions such as food uses, pests, diseases etc," she said.

"The genebank is a resource for a large number of research and breeding programs in government and private enterprises and even universities.

"We are what is called an active genebank because we don't just store the seeds; we actively regenerate seed.

"We support other programs and are a resource for research programs and send out 25,000 seed samples to researchers and breeders every year."

IMPORTANT WORK: Sally Norton at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham. Picture: AMELIA CRAFTER

IMPORTANT WORK: Sally Norton at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham. Picture: AMELIA CRAFTER

The Australian Grains Genebank is also important globally.

"There are around 1700 genebanks worldwide - ranging from cupboard-size ones, to ours which is one of the largest," she said.

"Australia is an isolated island and we have stringent biosecurity laws. To have a line of seed come in through plant quarantine can take 12 months or more and be quite expensive because of adhering to federal biosecurity laws, so it is important because of the security of the seeds and also efficient to have it here so multiple people can use the seed across the country.

"Genebanks are so important - not just for research and for future production, but also in the instance of world crises. For example, the war in Syria, where so much was destroyed and everything is being redeveloped with the help of genebanks.

"You can also have huge losses through the spread of disease, such as Russian wheat Aphid."

In Australia, none of the crops grown commercially are native to the country, so researchers are now looking at their wild relatives to see what advances could be made.

"There is a big push towards wild relatives, they exist in nature without human interaction so they are more resilient and just exist in nature under whatever conditions and in Australia it is often in poor soils with low rainfall and extreme in temp regimes," Mrs Norton said.

"None of the broadacre crops grown currently in Australia originated here. They have come from overseas and we have modified and bred them to suit our conditions.

"Wild relatives are the cousins and they can be as closely related as first cousin or siblings, right through to fourth cousin twice removed.

"They have characteristics or traits in them that are incredibly resilient to harsh conditions.

"A lot of the research is around what characteristics they have and then trying to work out how we use them, how do we get that into the elite varieties."

The team at Australian Grains Genebank also work in the field collecting seed themselves and doing small research projects with partners.

"We are looking to add value with what we have by linking with research partners and looking at plants in a high level inside and out," Mrs Norton said.

"Sensors and cameras that can see things the eyes can't and new genotyping skills to learn more about the diversity we have here.

"Technology in agriculture is just amazing and ties in so much to the changing face of agriculture. It's about constant improvement.

"We have been in nothing but a phase of constant improvement for years."

Personally, Mrs Norton is passionate about the genebank because she knows it makes a difference.

"My particular background is in wild relatives, they are poorly understood and conserved and I want them conserved in their natural environment where possible or the genebank if they are at risk," Mrs Norton said.

"I just want to make a difference. I feel like this area makes a real difference to anyone who eats food - and that is everyone."

Of the 210,000 types of seed, there are varieties of wheat, barley, oats, rye, pulses, lentils, chickpeas, peas, fava beans, sorghum, maize, rice, millets, ,mung beans, soya bean, sunflower and cotton to name a few.

The story The globally significant work occurring in Horsham's backyard first appeared on The Wimmera Mail-Times.