A rapidly growing world population is threatening food security and driving unsustainable soil degradation. The challenges are enormous, but part of the answer could come from an unlikely source - the humble legume.
Associate Professor Kaiser agrees but points out there will be valuable research outputs and industry engagement happening during that time. Getting a food variety translated from an idea stemming from genetic research into farms and onto supermarket shelves within a decade is industry standard.
Standing in the lengthy hallway of the Camden facility, with labs dotted left and right behind him, he’s also enthusiastic about the people working there.
“Agricultural campuses can attract a highly diverse researcher and student mix, often from countries pursuing similar productivity and security food goals,” he says. “I’d like to see even more people from more places sharing their energy and ideas. The hub certainly has that capacity.”
Supermarkets don’t give much in the way of star treatment to legume products, or pulses. Maybe a little to baked beans and peanut butter (yes, peanuts are a legume, not a nut), but the others, like chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils, will likely be relegated to the lower shelves and niche aisles.
It’s fair to say that in Australia legumes are not a glamour commodity. So why did the University of Sydney recently open a multimillion dollar research hub devoted to the study and nurture of the legume?
The answer is that – quite simply – world agriculture needs to get its legume act together.
Near the top of any list of looming challenges for humanity you’ll find the need to dramatically increase food production, stop global soil degradation and meet the protein needs of a rapidly growing population. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at a tub of mung beans, legumes can contribute to tackling all three.
Associate Professor Brent Kaiser is Director of the University's legume research hub. He has a background in plant molecular biology and worked for a number of years improving grape production in South Australia. In his easygoing Canadian/Australian accent he explains what the hub is about.
“We’re doing selective breeding to make legumes an even more attractive proposition for Australian farmers,” he says. “There are environmental benefits for them, but also financial benefits.”
Not many people would know it, but Australia is the second largest producer of chickpeas in the world, with about 90 percent of our crop going to the massive markets in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where it’s a staple. Demand outstrips supply so chickpeas go for $800-$1200 per tonne. Wheat, by comparison, currently draws just $250 per tonne.
So why doesn’t every farmer in the country plant chickpeas?
“The chickpea is a difficult plant to grow,” explains Associate Professor Kaiser. “It has significant disease and physiology issues that can make it less reliable. Basically, it’s missing the 50 to 60-year head start of focused breeding and selection that other crops like wheat have had."
Associate Professor Kaiser is now part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers spanning universities, government and the private sector working to bring, not just the chickpea, but eventually the broad bean, field pea and soybean up to speed. This includes toughening them up for a world where temperatures are rising and droughts are more intense.
Reflecting a government grant, the full name of the hub is the acronym-unfriendly Australian Research Council’s Industrial Transformation Research Hub, Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture. It has labs and glasshouses at Camden in Sydney’s southwest, with an extension of the facility about 530 kilometres away in Narrabri, northwest New South Wales, where test crops can be grown and studied on a commercially relevant scale.
Dr Angela Pattison (BScAgr ’07 GradCertInn&Ent ’12 PhD (Agriculture) ’14) PhD (Research) ’14) is from Sydney but moved to Narrabri to do postdoctoral research. She’s now both a Narrabri local and a staff researcher looking for the genetic threads that might be used to weave stronger and more productive plants. She has collected 1000 separate chickpea varieties from around the world, including wild seeds, and selected some 250 of those for further trials. Just six made it through for pre-breeding, and these varieties have already demonstrated that there is potential for significant yield improvements.
“The process of plant breeding isn’t that different to breeding dogs,” she explains. “You want the equivalent of the nice nature of labradors with the intelligence of kelpies.”
We’re doing selective breeding. There are environmental benefits but also financial benefits.
Legumes, which are called pulses when they’re dried, have two key superpowers. They contain a high proportion of protein (more on this later), and they perform what’s called nitrogen fixation. Plants need nitrogen to make photosynthesis happen. It’s also a building block of their cells and DNA. Most plants take the nitrogen they need from the soil and legumes extract the nitrogen they need from the air. What they don’t use ends up in the soil, ready to be used by other plants.
So a crop of cereal grains will take nitrogen out of the soil, but a crop of legumes will put it back in. Rotating crops this way was, historically, how farmers recharged their soil with both nitrogen and organic matter. But after the Second World War, factory-produced, petroleum-derived nitrogen fertilisers took legumes out of the planting cycle.
There is no question that synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has allowed huge improvements in food outputs – but the downsides are considerable. It is increasingly expensive to use, because over-farmed soil becomes less fertile, requiring more of this energy-intensive finite resource. Runoff takes it into streams and ground water, where it spoils water quality and promotes algal blooms.
As it breaks down, it gives off nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and affects the ozone layer. Plus, synthetic fertilisers don’t add any organic matter, part of the reason we now have serious soil degradation threatening global food security.
Putting legume crops back into the planting cycle will provide nitrogen, effectively for free, and organically recondition soils. Plus there’s the added benefit delivered by their previously mentioned protein content. Where 100g of durum wheat has about 14g of protein, the same of chickpeas has 19g. As world demand for protein skyrockets, plans are evolving to shift away from supplying that protein through environmentally damaging and resource-heavy meat production, towards plant-derived protein.
There are plenty of important goals to be kicked at the hub and there is a great sense there of what can be achieved, though Dr Pattison knows the process can’t be hurried. “It will be five to 10 years before improved chickpeas will be available,” she says. “And only if the offspring embody the good qualities of the parents.”
Find out more about innovation in agriculture, or join the Sydney Institute of Agriculture online at sydney.edu.au/agriculture
Written by Vivienne Reiner
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim and Joshua J Smith