South Australia’s efforts to feed the world with more nutritious food crops have been praised by 2016 World Food Prize winner Dr Howarth Bouis at a special reception at Flinders.
Plant breeding programs, led by pioneering work at the University of Adelaide and for more than a decade at Flinders University, have helped to make inroads into relieving malnourishment, poverty and to improving human health in developing countries.
By 2030, Dr Bouis forecasts that more than 130 biofortified dominant staple crops are likely to be consumed by more than 1 billion people, or up to 25% of the population in 32 countries.
“US Department of Agriculture scientist Dr Ross Welch, based at Cornell University, has inspired plant-soil-nutrition researchers around the world to use agricultural food crops to do the work of vitamin and mineral supplements in nutrient-deficient diets,” Washington DC-based Dr Bouis told the Flinders reception at the Alere Function Centre last month.
Ironically, it was poor soil quality and grain nutritional deficiencies in Australia that kickstarted the important agricultural research in SA soon after biofortified crop development commenced 25 years ago.
“It started here in Adelaide in response to trace element deficient soils in Australia,” Dr Bouis said.
“Australia has some of the most zinc-deficient soils in the world.
“So it’s been a great place to look for improvements for domestic markets, along with overseas markets.”
Dr Bouis says micronutrient analysis and molecular marker development at Flinders University is helping breeding programs in a range of major food crops, including wheat and rice.
Dr ‘Howdy’ Bouis, who leads the US-based HarvestPlus, paid tribute to the contribution of American agricultural scientist Professor Welch, retired Adelaide and Flinders Professor Robin Graham, the University of Adelaide’s Dr Graham Lyons and Flinders University Associate Professor James Stangoulis at a special reception to celebrate the SA contribution to the global crop improvement program (see National Press Club, Canberra 15 August 2016).
Using conventional selective breeding to produce nutrient-enriched crop staples, or biofortification, had struggled to gain research funding and acceptance but was now leading a ‘green revolution’ in combatting ‘hidden hunger’ where micronutrient deficiencies affect more than 2 billion people around the world.
Rice, wheat, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, beans and other crops were now biofortified for better zinc, iron, pro-vitamin A carotenoids, and other nutrients, with more than 100 new varieties in 30 countries and expanding every year.
After almost two decades, the biofortification research movement has attract significant philanthropic and government funding, including the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Associate Professor Stangoulis says farmers and consumers in developing countries are embracing the new crops bred to provide naturally enriched nutritional value.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he says, adding the Flinders nutritional biology and Flinders Analytical in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences are currently testing crop samples from countries as diverse as Nepal (lentils), Bangladesh (rice), Mexico (maize) and India (pearl millet and sorghum).
The plant physiology, soil and nutritional experts at Flinders are working on a range of micronutrient analysis and molecular marker development.
“The developing world is really embracing these new varieties and what HarvestPlus research groups are achieving is giving them the knowhow at low cost,” Associate Professor Stangoulis says.
“We are making it a lot easier for plant breeders to identify the best way forward.”
One of the research projects involves the Flinders team working on novel molecular marker technology that will enable faster and more accurate development of high yielding, zinc-dense wheat grain.
The majority of micronutrient deficiency cases are found in developing countries in which wheat and rice are staple foods.
Mild to moderate zinc deficiency affects up to one-third of the global population, leading to impaired immune system function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and increased susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections, malaria and diarrhoeal disease. Every year, more than 800,000 deaths are directly attributable to zinc deficiency.
Breeding higher zinc presence in grains – rather than via uptake of zinc in the soil by the whole plant – has the added benefit of reducing the ongoing cost of repeated use of often expensive and chemical fertilisers.