ARC legumes hub to tackle global food, nutritional security

24 October 2016
GRDC-supported hub aims for staple market

A $14.5m Australian Research Council legumes hub was launched today at the University of Sydney to improve the sustainability of Australia's produce as plant-based protein sources are set to spike.

Legumes are ideally placed to provide people with their nutritional needs.
Associate Professor Brent Kaiser.

A multi-million dollar project spanning government, the private sector and universities is being launched as part of an Australian Research Council program – with the ambitious aims of bolstering legumes as global food demand increases in an environment of climate change and scarce natural resources.

The five-year ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub – Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture in partnership with the Grains Research & Development Corporation, worth $14.5m in cash and kind, will position Australia to take advantage of a significant and growing market for these ‘future crops’ – improving human health while helping address the over-reliance on a handful of staples worldwide.

University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison said the hub, based at the Camden campus, would help provide a coordinated approach to position legumes as the coming generation's staples of choice. 

"We hope that by drawing together the best researchers with leading industry experts, we will play a vital role in addressing complex food security, health and environmental issues, both here and abroad," Professor Ivison said.

The Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture hub, being launched today, will focus on innovative approaches to enhance drought-heat, salinity and flooding tolerance and to improve below-ground traits that are naturally linked to nitrogen acquisition for better plant growth.

The hub will include 13 chief investigators from state government agriculture research departments and universities including the University of Sydney’s Centre for Carbon, Water and Food, the Plant Breeding Institute, as well as the University of Western Australia, University of Adelaide, Australian National University and Flinders University – and create 12 postdoctoral roles.  

Director of the hub, Associate Professor Brent Kaiser, said the importance of legumes in sustainable cropping systems had been extensively documented; legumes also promised significant untapped potential for genetic improvements.

“Although the past 50 years has seen an increase in the area planted with grain legumes, the area planted with cereals still outnumbers this fourfold – this lag may be due in part to unstable legume prices because of high variability in their yields,” Associate Professor Kaiser said.

“This lag, particularly in developing countries and despite increasing global demand, if left unchecked, could threaten current and future food security.

“As the world shifts from animal- to plant-based protein sources because of supply and cost issues, legumes are ideally placed to provide people with their nutritional needs.

“Legumes require low inputs and put nitrogen back into the soil, rather than using extensive amounts of expensive synthetic fertilisers that pollute the environment.”

Did you know? 5 facts about the humble bean and pulses:

  • Grain legumes are essential in optimal human diets because their seed structure and composition confers a physiologically favourable matrix in the total diet.
  • Studies in China revealed all-cause mortality was increased in individuals on a legume-free diet.
  • Several meta-analyses of observational studies have associated eating legumes with lower risk of a number of cancers, including bowel cancer.
  • Pulse exports alone were worth more than $1b to the Australian economy in 2013.
  • It estimated that Australia needs to double legumes production in order to have a healthy agriculture system; currently, the proportion of legumes is about 8 percent.

Source: C. Foyer…Brent Kaiser et al: “Neglecting legumes has compromised human health and sustainable food production”, Nature Plants 2016.