Planting ideas to advance food crops

The failure of world food systems to adequately feed more than 2 billion people is spurring agricultural researchers to find rapid solutions.

Supported by a Crawford Fund scholarship, Flinders University postdoctoral researcher Dr Emma de Courcy-Ireland recently attended a two-day conference entitled ‘Reshaping Agriculture for Better Nutrition (The Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus).’

Dr de Courcy-Ireland, part of the Nutritional Biology crop biofortification research group at Flinders, is investigating the link between rice grain growth and zinc accumulation.

“The conference highlighted the shocking facts about under-nutrition: 800 million under-nourished and 2 billion lacking key micronutrients, but by the end of the day I was encouraged about the inroads that are being made towards providing more nutritious foods,” she says.

“As illustrated by many at the conference, the scale of the problems caused by under- and over-nutrition require multi-disciplinary research teams to solve them.”

Dr de Courcy-Ireland joined additional sessions run by the Crawford Fund’s Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (RAID) group, an Australia-based network bringing together early to mid-career researchers with an interest in agriculture and international development. The initiative is supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

Dr de Courcy-Ireland, left, and her Crawford Fund mentor Dr Julie Nicol.

More than 2 billion people worldwide do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals in their diets, according to the World Health Organisation.

Inadequate zinc intake affects 17.3% of the world’s population, mostly in Asia and Africa, and is responsible for the deaths of 433,000 children under the age of five each year.

The impact of micronutrient deficiencies is most serious in women of reproductive age (especially pregnant women) and children under the age of five, due to their increased micronutrient requirements.

Earlier this year, Dr de Courcy-Ireland joined Professor in Plant Physiology and Biochemistry James Stangoulis and postdoctoral fellow Dr Nick Warnock on a field trip to the Philippines, spending more than a month collecting grain samples to support the research.

Wheat is another important staple that acts as a primary source of dietary energy, protein, and essential micronutrients such as iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn) for the world’s population.

Professor Stangoulis recently co-published a Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing Group) paper entitled ‘Genetic dissection of grain zinc concentration in spring wheat for mainstreaming biofortification in CIMMYT wheat breeding’.

Co-authors were from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centres (CIMMYT) in Mexico and India, Cornell University, USA, the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research, and Punjab Agricultural University and Banaras Hindu University in India.

The research considered 330 wheat lines in a range of dry environments in Mexico and India to identify the genetic mechanism of Zn accumulation in wheat grain. The study identified some promising genetic loci associated with grain Zn in wheat.

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