Tag Archives: food security

science and technology

Speak up for STEM and give facts a chance

As science and technology researchers, practitioners and enthusiasts, we feel very strongly that our community should think analytically and use scientific information to inform their decisions, as individuals and as a nation.

We hope our leaders in politics, business and in the media incorporate the lessons and findings of science and technology into their decision-making about health, energy, transport, land and marine use – and recognise the benefits of investing in great scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions.

But how do we ensure critical thinking is applied in decision-making? How do we incorporate and apply scientific findings and analysis in the formulation of policy, and encourage strong, strategic investment in research?

The only way is to become vocal and proactive advocates for STEM.

Scientists and technologists must see ourselves as not only experts in our field, but also as educators and ambassadors for our sector. Scientists are explicitly taught that our profession is based on logic; that it’s our job to present evidence and leave somebody else to apply it.

For people who’ve made a career of objectivity, stepping out of that mindset and into the murky world of politics and policy can be a challenge, but it’s a necessary one.

The planet is heading towards crises that can be solved by science – food and water security, climate change, health challenges, extreme weather events. It’s arguably never been more important for scientists and technologists to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with the media, investors, and political leaders. We need to tell the stories of science and technology to solve the species-shaking challenges of our time.

A plethora of opportunities exist for STEM researchers and practitioners to improve and use their skills in communication, influence, marketing, business, and advocacy. As the peak body representing scientists and technologists, Science & Technology Australia hosts a variety of events to equip STEM professionals with the skills they need, while connecting them with the movers and shakers in those worlds.

Science meets Parliament is one of these valuable opportunities, and has been bringing people of STEM together with federal parliamentarians for 18 years. Others include Science meets Business and Science meets Policymakers.

We can provide the forum, but it’s up to STEM professionals to seize the opportunity by forging relationships with our nation’s leaders in politics, business and the media. We must ensure the voice of science is heard and heeded – not just on the day of an event, but every day.

Currently STEM enjoys rare bilateral political support; a National Innovation and Science Agenda; and a new Industry, Innovation and Science Minister, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has indicated his intention to continue to roll it out.

As we encounter our fourth science minister in three years, however, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow science and technology to slide down the list of priorities. Bigger challenges are also mounting, with the profession of science correspondent virtually dead in Australia and the international political culture favouring opinion and rhetoric over established fact and credibility.

Scientists and technologists must resist their natural tendency to humility, and proactively sort the nuggets of truth from the pan of silty half-truth. We must actively work to influence public debate by pushing evidence-based arguments into the media, and into the political discourse.

When our society starts assuming that we should make substantial and long-term investment in research; when the methods and findings of science and technology are routinely incorporated into shaping policy and making important decisions for the nation – we’ll consider our job to be well done.

Kylie Walker

CEO, Science & Technology Australia

Read next: Dr Maggie Evans-Galea, Executive Director of ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, paints a picture of Australia’s science and innovation future – one that requires a major cultural shift.

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on science and technology using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

bioclay

BioClay to create healthier food futures

A University of Queensland (UQ) team has made a discovery called ‘BioClay’ that could help conquer the greatest threat to global food security – pests and diseases in plants.

Research leader Professor Neena Mitter says BioClay – an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticides – could be a game-changer for crop protection.

“In agriculture, the need for new control agents grows each year, driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance,” she says.

“Our disruptive research involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.”

The research, by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is published in Nature Plants.

Mitter says the technology reduces the use of pesticides without altering the genome of the plants.

“Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

She says BioClay meets consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce.

“The cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland.”

AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu says BioClay combines nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wider field of primary agricultural production,” Professor Xu says.

The project has been supported by a Queensland Government Accelerate Partnership grant and a partnership with Nufarm Limited.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a UQ institute jointly supported by the Queensland Government.

This article was first published by the University of Queensland on 10 January 2017. Read the original article here.

shelf-life

Ensuring shelf-life right from the word ‘grow’

A pair of Curtin University researchers have come up with a way of extending the shelf-life of vegetables, fruit and flowers by slowing down the process that leads to them spoiling. 

The process has the potential to help reduce the billions of tonnes of food that are wasted worldwide each year.

In effect, it also represents a new weapon in the fight to help feed the world’s growing population, estimated to reach more than nine billion people by 2050.

Making food last longer and reducing waste will help feed more people, compared to alternative strategies of having to increase food production.

The process was developed by horticultural researcher Professor Zora Singh and organic chemist Dr Alan Payne.

Food and flowers ripen, and then over ripen and spoil, due to their natural production of ethylene gas.

The researchers have come up with compounds they’ve dubbed ‘ethylene antagonists’ (in chemistry an antagonist is a substance which inhibits another process).

The result is that fruit and vegetables stay fresher for longer, and cut flowers take longer to drop their petals.

“The way these compounds work is that they don’t reduce the production of ethylene, they prevent the fruits, vegetables and flowers from perceiving ethylene,” says Payne.

“Every fruit has a receptor that ethylene binds to.”

“What we’re doing is we’re masking those receptors.”

Singh says up to 44% of fresh food and produce spoils before it reaches consumers, and that half of this is due to ethylene production.

Singh has been working in the food research area for more than two decades and several years ago approached Payne.

“I started to think how could I make a compound that’s easier to make, easier to use and I came up with these compounds that Zora was happy to test on his fruits and flowers,” says Payne.

The pair says their ethylene blockers are more versatile than current methods of increasing shelf-life and can be used pre- or post-harvest as a solid or liquid by spraying, dipping, waxing or fumigation.

“The beauty of these compounds is that we can apply them in the production phase, when the food is growing,” Singh says.

“We tried to make them more user friendly, because it was already being used by the industry.”

Their work won a recent Curtin Commercial Innovation Award.

The researchers and Curtin University have filed a patent and are seeking potential partners to commercialise the technology.

This article was first published by ScienceNetwork WA on 24 October 2016. Read the original article here.

pollination

Honeybee health: a #dataimpact story

Featured image above: Environmental stressors which alter bee pollination, like extreme weather and pesticides, are assessed using large data sets generated by bees from all over the world via fitted micro-sensor ‘backpacks’. Credit: Giorgio Venturieri

Bee colonies are dying out worldwide and nobody is exactly sure why. The most obvious culprit is the Varroa mite which feeds on bees and bee larvae, while also spreading disease. The only country without the Varroa mite is Australia. However, experts believe that there are many factors affecting bee health.

To unravel this, CSIRO is leading the Global Initiative of Honeybee Health (GIHH) in gathering large sets of data on bee hives from all over the world. High-tech micro-sensor ’backpacks’ are fitted to bees to log their movements, similar to an e-tag. The data from individual bees is sent back to a small computer at the hive.

Researchers are able to analyse this data to assess which stressors – such as extreme weather, pesticides or water contamination – affect the movements and pollination of bees.

Maintaining honey bee populations is essential for food security as well securing economic returns from crops. Bee crop pollination is estimated to be worth up to $6 billion to Australian agriculture alone.

Currently 50,000 bees have been tagged and there may be close to one million by the end of 2017. Researchers aim to not only improve the health of honey bees but to increase crop sustainability and productivity through pollination management.

This article was first published by the Australian National Data Service on 10 October 2016. Read the original article here.

You might also enjoy:

Birth defects: a data discovery

 

grain biosecurity

Securing the future of grain

Featured image above: The Hon Luke Hartsuyker and His Excellency Dr Ren Zhengxiao introduce the Australia-China Joint Centre for Postharvest Grain Biosecurity and Quality Research. Credit: Plant Biosecurity CRC

His Excellency Dr Ren Zhengxiao, Administrator of China’s State Administration of Grain, and the Hon Luke Hartsuyker, Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister, have launched an Australia-China grains biosecurity research centre partnership.

The Australia-China Joint Centre for Postharvest Grain Biosecurity and Quality Research is a partnership between Australia’s Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), Murdoch University and China’s Academy of State Administration of Grain.

With grain Australia’s most significant agricultural export and China the world’s largest producer of wheat, the two countries share similar challenges for their industries.

“Global grain markets are changing and we need to change with them. Established methods for stored grain pest control are facing increased pressure from both regulation and changing market preferences for non-chemical options,” says Dr Michael Robinson, CEO of the Plant Biosecurity CRC.

“A major challenge is increasing insect resistance to the stored grain fumigant phosphine, a mainstay of the grains industry globally,” he says.

The Joint Centre will bring together leading researchers from both China and Australia to work on developing non-chemical controls to manage stored grain pests with the aim of reducing biosecurity and trade risks while providing clean grain.

“This partnership will assist both nations in protecting domestic and international grains markets, maintaining access and ensuring food security,” says Robinson.

The Joint Centre will focus on innovative technologies such as the use of nitrogen for stored grain pest management and ‘lure and kill’ pest control using pheromones and light-based trapping systems. The partnership will work with grain suppliers and companies to commercialise the research and deliver it to industry.

“This agreement has the opportunity to sustain biosecurity research in the grains sector for the long-term,” Robinson says.

“The visit of His Excellency Mr Ren to Australia to launch the Joint Centre shows how important this is for the grains industries of both countries.”

This information on theAustralia-China Joint Centre for Postharvest Grain Biosecurity and Quality Research was first shared by the Plant Biosecurity CRC. Read the original article here. 

CO₂ cuts nutrition

CO₂ cuts nutrition

Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.

Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.

Researchers at the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre (PICCC), a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources in Victoria, are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of CO₂ on grain yield and quality to reveal how a more carbon-enriched atmosphere will affect Australia’s future food security.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
An aerial view of the Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE) project, where researchers are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide on grain yield and quality.

Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.

“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

According to Fitzgerald, the research being carried out by PICCC, referred to as Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE), is also being done in a drier environment than anywhere previously studied.

“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”

The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Horizontal rings injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as part of the AGFACE project. Credit: AGFACE

“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.


Pests and disease

While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.

Scientists at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources have been researching the impact of elevated CO₂ levels on plant vector-borne diseases, and they have observed an increase of 30% in the severity of the Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV).

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Higher CO₂ levels are linked with an increase in the severity of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus.

Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.

“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.

“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”


This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.

With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.

But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.

The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.

“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.

“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”

This micronutrient deficiency, referred to as “hidden hunger”, is a major health concern, particularly in developing countries, according to the International Food Research Policy Institute’s 2014 Global Hunger Index: The challenge of hidden hunger.

There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.

The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.

For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.

– Carl Williams

www.piccc.org.au

www.pbcrc.com.au