“Fast-food” crops combatting drought, climate change and global hunger

Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses to speed up the life cycle of crops with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique to minimise the impacts of drought, climate change and global hunger.

Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) Dr Lee Hickey led the world-first program, which after more than a decade is achieving ed game-changing results.

Dr Hickey and his team discovered that, in the right conditions, a crop’s lifecycle can be sped up, cutting the process of plant breeding in half.

Dr Lee Hickey inside the speed breeding warehouse at the University of Queensland.

“In normal glasshouse conditions the plants rely on the sun and can only grow two to three generations of crops per year. Meaning it can take up to 20 years to breed crops that are drought tolerant and disease and herbicide resistant.

Speed breeding has allowed us to grow up to six generations of crops in a year for wheat, barley, chickpeas, canola, peanuts and potatoes.

Dr Lee Hickey

“We achieved this by exposing the plants to LED lights for 22 hours of the day to boost photosynthesis and by keeping the greenhouse’s temperatures between 17 and 22 degrees Celsius,” he said.

The constant exposure to the correct amount of blue and red light waves tricks the plants into not sleeping and accelerating their growth cycle so researchers can perfect gene combinations and re-design the efficiency of crop breeding.

How does this effect farmers?

According to Dr Hickey, optimising and setting up the facilities are high-tech and require a lot of energy all year round, which can be quite costly.

“We are currently growing a thousand plants per square metre and are aiming to do this in the cheapest way possible while using the least amount of space. Essentially building a plant factory.

“We run simulations to optimise the outcome of each gene combinations, aiming to find the perfect marriage between genetic improvement and economic improvement.”

Last year the first wheat variety completely bred using the speed breeding technique was released to Australian growers. The seeds released included traits that stops mature gain crops from prematurely germinating after rain.

Crop breeding has helped farmers in Australia and around the world combat adverse weather conditions, disease and reduce tillage practices.

Fifth generation mixed farmer from Quambatook, Victoria and GrainGrowers chairman Brett Hosking said crop breeding has helped Australian farmers thrive in Australia’s tough and dry conditions.

“Without a doubt, it’s been a vital tool enabling growers to roll with the punches of the changing environment and dealing with the challenges that come with it.

As farmers we need to be constantly evolving, setting and achieving goals and improving on each year – crop breeding has helped us do that.

Brett Hosking

Mr Hosking grows majority wheat or barley as well as canola, lentils and field peas, all of which began as seeds bred to be tolerant to drought and frost.

“Crop breeding, and advancements such as speed breeding, are all welcomed and supported by the industry as it’s an encouraging step towards NFF’s vision to reach $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030,” Mr Hosking said.

Going global

Speed breeding techniques have made global waves with Dr Hickey receiving more than a thousand requests from international plant breeders and scientists.

Dr Hickey and his team joined forces with the University of Sydney, John Innes Centre and the Norwich Research Park in the UK to publish their findings in response to the overwhelming attention from the global scientific community.

We have been working with global breeding companies for five years to establish their own speed breeding programs and warehouses.

Dr Lee Hickey

Dr Hickey recently returned from a trip to India where extreme heat conditions, similar to those Australia experiences, have forced them to look into speed breeding warehouses to help them feed their growing population.

“This Indian company also supplies sorghum, millet and ground nut plants to Africa, so hopefully speed breeding can also have an impact in the developing world.”

Andrea Martinello

Andrea Martinello

Andrea is the Community & Engagement Officer at the National Farmers' Federation.

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