Two Australian scientists from the CSIRO have discovered the "flowering switch" gene in plants, a breakthrough that could increase the profit margins of the nation's grain farmers by allowing the creation of GM flowers that are suited to the climatic environment around them, preventing the loss of millions of dollars worth of crops through adverse weather conditions.

Dr Wendy Craik, executive director of the National Farmers' Federation, was pleased by the breakthrough: "It's a real example of what gene technology can do for farmers and the whole community. And because we own the technology, it will give us a significant competitive edge in world markets. It also has incredible potential for the community in general - from home gardeners, flower growers and nurseries and even organic farmers."

In recognition of their work, Dr Jim Peacock and Dr Liz Dennis have now received the inaugural A$300,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Science. They have already developed modified canola and are now working on wheat, with the future potential for many other crops. Dr Peacock explained: "Farmers growing canola will be able to say `I want a 120-day flowering crop, or a 150-day crop, and the seed to produce those crops will be available."

Slap in the face for sustainable farming?

The scientists eventually hope to be able to boost crop yields by 10-25%, but this could take time, hindered by the need for long periods of breeding, field-testing and official approval. Despite all the positive encouragement however, some dissenting voices can be heard. Bob Phelps, director of the Australian Conservation Foundation's GeneEthics Network, commented that the news was a "slap in the face" for scientists working to promote sustainable farming.