Making the next meal

23 September 2016
Food production must increase significantly to meet growing world demand

Large scale food production will be vital to meet the growing world demand. Maximising productivity from smaller scale and subsistence farmers will be essential and the work done by women particularly, will be important around the world.

By 2050, global demand for food is expected to increase by more than 60 percent, with some experts saying this figure will be even greater. Yet world crop yields are not growing fast enough to meet the demand.

This places huge pressure on the food sector to find new ways to produce more food, safely and viably. Across the University of Sydney, people with expertise and ideas are working to address what could be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

A particular focus of this activity is the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and two faculties, Agriculture and Environment, and Veterinary Science. With a record number of students being offered a place within the school in 2016, and with the appointment of Professor Robyn McConchie, the University’s first woman professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and the Environment, there is strong recognition of the importance of this work and, equally, the role of women in it.

Professor Robyn McConchie at green-grocery chain Harris Farm, one of the active partners in her food research program.

“Women play a key role in improving livelihoods, health and education, particularly in the developing world,” Professor McConchie says. “For example, women are responsible for 70 percent of the productivity in African countries, in addition to looking after the home and family. Targeting women in agricultural and capacity-building projects has a huge multiplier effect.”

Professor McConchie introduced the new Bachelor of Food and Agribusiness to the faculty in 2014, a combined degree that focuses on both the science and business of food production and supply. It includes a 12-week compulsory industry internship to ensure students are work-ready upon graduation.

Holding a Bachelor of Science (Plant Science), a Master of Arts in education and a PhD, Professor McConchie has for 20 years been  teaching and researching in the area of how to extend the usability of perishable crops and grains, after harvest.

“One of my fortes is engagement with industry. I saw an opportunity to grow that through developing a Fresh Produce Safety Centre. It’s funded by industry, but it’s affiliated with the University,” says Professor McConchie.

The Fresh Produce Safety Centre is supported by everyone from producers to food retailers such as Harris Farm, Coles and Woolworths, as it focuses on research into practical solutions for industry to minimise food-borne illness in products that are eaten raw, such as salads.

Professor Robyn Alders (front left) has helped small African communities with the health of their precious poultry stock. Photo supplied.

PhD candidate Reetica Rekhy is working with Professor McConchie, but she has a different focus. She’s investigating novel strategies to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in Australia. She has published two papers and is finalising her thesis.

Rekhy has undertaken her PhD after 20 years’ experience in the food industry. “Agriculture and agribusiness are key components of the Australian economy,” she says. “Women have a lot to contribute and we need to attract more women into this line of work.”

Fourth-year Agriculture student Stephanie Tabone agrees. “It’s incredibly important for women involved in the industry to be able to voice their opinions,” she says.

Close to finishing her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, Tabone is looking forward to seeing the results of her honours research project, which  she hopes will apply in a practical way to the challenge of global food security. “This project can provide plant breeders with the basis of improving aspects of crop growth, such as water-use efficiency, harvest index and crop yield,” she says.

For her part, Professor McConchie’s world view has been  shaped by years of experience in developing countries, including more than three years in post-harvest management of maize, rice and legumes in Africa, funded by the Australia Awards Program through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Through her research project, Stephanie Tabone aims to improve global food security.

As Professor McConchie works on improving the output and quality of crops, Associate Professor Robyn Alders AO (BSc (Vet) ’83 BVSc ’84 DipVetClinStud ’86), of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, has been working closely with smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia for the past two decades. As a veterinarian and researcher, she is developing a sustainable vaccination program against Newcastle disease in village chickens.

Newcastle disease is highly contagious and deadly for domestic fowl. There is no cure, but Professor Alders’ vaccination program is improving the health of village chickens and saving small farmers in many countries from devastating loss through the disease. Professor Alders is now based in Tanzania and Zambia where she is evaluating the impact of improved family poultry and crop production on the health of mothers and children.

She says the key to the best outcomes in food security and nutrition in developing countries is an interdisciplinary approach. She also attests to the important role women play in food production globally, including in low-income countries.

“Involving women in all aspects of agriculture, food  and nutrition security and sustainable development, from farming to policymaking, is the smart and sensible thing to do, as is involving people from different farming traditions,” Professor Alders says. “With the multiple challenges our world faces, enabling diversity of gender and culture, in addition to diversity of disciplines, will facilitate the leaps in understanding and practices that are urgently required.”  

Current food systems in Australia have contributed to 60 percent of our populations being overweight or obese
Professor Alders

The benefits of Professor Alders’ approach are easy to assess. It has been estimated that her work coordinating projects totalling $8 million in funding has delivered economic benefits of $105 million, primarily for women and African households. That’s a return on investment of more than 1000 percent. If the adoption rates keep increasing, the benefit is set to increase to $480 million.

In Australia, Professor Alders’ domestic research portfolio aims to improve farm gate prices for farmers, while increasing access to high-quality food for vulnerable people and households.

“Current food systems in Australia have contributed to 60 percent of our populations being overweight or obese, while these same people simultaneously suffer from micronutrient deficiencies,” Professor Alders says.

This issue of access to safe and nutritious food is attracting considerable interest from large agribusiness companies and global humanitarian agencies. It’s also opening up diverse avenues of employment for graduates in agriculture and the animal and veterinary biosciences. These graduates are finding careers as agronomists, livestock production specialists, farm managers, researchers and irrigation specialists, in areas including biosecurity, biotechnology, commodity trading and crop production and protection.

“Our graduates are addressing the key challenges of our planet,” Professor McConchie says. “Feeding the world, sustainability, healthy food and wellbeing – our students can make a big difference and positively contribute real and innovative solutions.”

Future food

The University of Sydney is planting itself in the future of food production with a number of partnerships and initiatives. Here are just two.

Facing climate change

Abundant Produce, a company that breeds hybrid vegetables with better yield, disease resistance, temperature tolerance and taste, undertakes its research at the University. Working on the project on behalf of the University is Dr Nabil Ahmad (PhD (Agriculture) ’05), who is Abundant’s chief breeder. In 2016, Abundant Produce’s share price soared by 350 percent.

Knowledge sharing

Australia and Israel face many similar challenges in food production, so it makes sense for the two nations to work together. In April 2016 the University of Sydney and the Agricultural Research Organisation of Israel signed a memorandum of understanding in front of NSW Premier Mike Baird and the Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Belinda Hutchinson AM, which will see the two institutions innovating and  teaching together in the areas of dairy, poultry and  aquaculture.