Chickpeas: the wonder crop to boost the northern economy

1 November 2017

Chickpeas have many positive impacts on farmers, the economy and the environment. With further research these crops could increase Australia's export trade, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut farming costs. 

The Australian government has awarded funding to a number of collaborative research teams as part of an initiative to improve the economy in northern Australia. The funding adds to a larger regional improvement project spanning ten years and valued at more than $75 million.

The approved project involving University of Sydney researchers hopes to enhance the economy by making improvements to agriculture. These researchers will work directly with industry as well as 12 other partner organisations to develop sustainable cropping systems.

Agriculture is one of three key areas the government hopes to improve in northern Australia – others include food and tropical health.

Spearheading the project at the University is Associate Professor Brent Kaiser from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. Brent is a molecular physiologist whose work focuses on plant nitrogen transport systems, specifically sustainable chickpeas. Brent is the Director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub – Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture which is headquartered at Camden. 

He will work with Professor Richard Trethowan, an expert in plant breeding, and Dr Rosalind Deaker, a microbiologist, to expand northern chickpea production in the Ord Valley region where the climate is optimal and there is ample water supply.

“Chickpeas are a plant that came out of the fertile crescent – namely Iraq and Syria so they naturally adapt to warmer drier climates,” says Brent.

But why chickpeas, what makes them so special? Well, for one, they're extremely lucrative. 

“Last year the chickpea was fetching about $1200 a tonne compared with wheat, which was returning about $250 a tonne,” says Brent.

“We had the largest-ever production of pulses in Australia given this profitability.”

The premium price is a result of demand from overseas buyers, namely India. 

“The Indian market produces eight-fold what Australia does however they need another one-and-a-half million tonnes of pulses (mainly chickpeas) per year for the next 15 years to meet their expected population growth food requirements.

“This year has been a little shakier as the climate hasn’t been as great, but we still expect to export about 90 percent of our production."

“We grow in total three million tonnes of pulses in Australia, so half of what we grow now needs to go to India just to meet population growth rates -  there’s huge markets and opportunities available.”

By 2020, population growth in India is expected to surpass China, and given the nations appetite for legumes, this offers huge potential for Australian growers. 

But aside from financial gains, there's plenty more that the humble chickpea can offer. 

This crop can actually create its own nitrogen supply, and nitrogen is a key component in maintaining soil health. 

With the help of a group of soil bacteria called rhizobia, chickpeas can actually take nitrogen from the air, transform it into a usable form (ammonia) which is used by the plant and which can be returned to the soil to act as a natural fertilizer. Even once a chickpea is dead its positive impact and N bounty remains on the crop site.

This decreases the need for added nitrogen fertilisers, which are extremely harmful to the environment and damaging to a farmer’s bottom line. 

“Nitrogen fertilizers are an immense contributor to our ecological footprint – a lot of it is not used by the plants its intended for and it gets lost to ground water, rivers as a pollutant and to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

“We supply about 120 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers to the planet per annum to support agriculture and this results in an almost linear release (1-3% N2O kg / kg N fertiliser) of greenhouse gas emissions into the environment.”

So, if we can encourage farmers to plant chickpeas or other pulses we can significantly reduce our ecological footprint.

“You can pull back thirty to forty percent of your nitrogen use,” says Brent.

But it just keeps getting better. If you're a wheat, corn or crop farmer of any kind, chickpeas are also the perfect remedy for disease and weed growth when used as a break crop.

As many farmers will know, if you plant the same crop year-in-year-out they don’t perform as well. They often become susceptible to disease and suffer attack from weeds. However, if you rotate in another crop (a break crop) you can save yourself from potential trouble.

“It’s a system that helps break disease cycles, over time if you keep planting the same plant you develop disease resistance – that’s why you need break crops, and legumes (chickpeas) are fantastic for this,” says Brent. 

It's great news for the farmer because it means they don't need to leave the land vacant for too long trying to enhance the soil or fighting off pests which would normally result in a loss of productivity and therefore profitability. 

While there are huge opportunities to utilise chickpeas in Australian farming, the path ahead is not without its challenges.

“Most chickpeas are genetically quite wild still, they haven’t had the years of breeding that wheat and barley has and so they are quite susceptible to disease and pests,” Brent admits.

It's also quite difficult to grow crops when there's no reprieve from the hot weather. Likewise chickpeas have a longer lifespan which can be more troublesome from a management control/scheduling perspective for farmers. 

Brent and his team hope to diminish the prevalence of these issues over the course of their three-year project.

Through the Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P), the University of Sydney will fund two PhD led projects investigating chickpea production delivering advances in productivity and sustainability to northern Australia. Projects will focus on developing heat tolerant chickpea lines and the identification and development of rhizobial inoculants for northern Australian soils. Find out more here. 

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