Australian wild rice key to global food security

An Article from the Bush Telegraph July 2014:-
Australia’s northern wetlands could soon play a leading role in global food production, as researchers look to native wild rice to overcome the diseases and production hurdles that plague domesticated varieties. Charlie McKillop joined the hunt for wild rice in the Top End.

Wild rice is growing in abundance in wetlands across remote parts of northern Australia, particularly in far north Queensland.

Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) team leader Professor Robert Henry uses GPS coordinates to zero in on rice plots identified at several sites covering a 200 kilometre radius from Mareeba north to Lakefield national park near Cooktown. His excitement is palpable.

We do have to come to understand how traditional people have used rice in the past… I think we need to go back and explore that with them.


This is the latest thing in rice,’ he says. ‘We’ve got quite a bit of international attention on the potential of the rices from this part of the world and they really are quite unexplored.’

‘Botanically, north Queensland and northern Australia is not very well explored at this level.’

Professor Henry is convinced these remote wetlands could hold the key to global food security.

Not only is the diversity of species unique, but their uncontaminated genes offer hope in a world where over-cultivation has displaced many wild food sources.

Despite returning to the far north on many occasions, Professor Henry continues to be amazed by the sheer abundance of rice.

‘We do find it in many places, and some of it in very large populations, occasionally almost as far as the eye can see and that’s extraordinary.’

It’s clear the veteran team leader has one eye on the past and the other on the future as he seeks to understand more about the attributes of a unique, but little-known native crop.

‘We do have to come to understand how traditional people have used rice in the past and I think we need to go back and explore that with them, because with rice being so abundant in some areas, here it’s clearly a food source that must have been used in the past.’

As anyone who has grown rice well knows, disease is a constant worry, and the recent spectre of rice blast disease in Australia has presented new challenges for commercial breeding programs.

Plant pathologist Andrew Geering says that is why ancient DNA found in Australian wild rice could be crucial to the industry’s defence against disease.

‘If our hypothesis is right, the rice blast disease and the wild rice here have been living together for thousands, if not millions of years.’

‘Diseases in natural environments tend to reach some sort of equilibrium, where the disease doesn’t kill the host population, but it just occurs at a very low level and that’s probably because there’s a diversity of resistance genes in the wild rice.’

‘The wild rice we’ve been looking at here is closely related to the domesticated rice and it can be interbred, so there is potential for the breeders to integrate any resistance genes.’

Beyond the laboratory, the QAAFI team is very focused on the commercial potential of far north Queensland’s wild rice.

Is it realistic to expect that one day we might see a Mareeba Wetlands, Abattoir Swamp or Lakefield rice variety being served up on a plate?

According to Dr Ian Chivers, it’s definitely a possibility.

He’s embedded in the team, working on behalf of his company, Native Seeds, a seed developer and producer of Australian native grasses.

‘There looks to be, on the face value, some opportunity with the material that’s gained here, there’s clearly a long way to go,’ he says.

‘I guess the big thing I’ve learned as much as anything else, is how dependant they are on aquatic systems … and that worries me to an extent, if we’re going into a drying climate, as to whether we can use them or not.’

‘I guess we don’t know the quantum of the water that’s required.’

Dr Glen Fox, a cereal chemist, is keen to return to the lab to put his samples through a rigorous series of sensory evaluation trials, to assess the taste, palatability, appearance and nutritional qualities of the rice.

‘It really has challenged our thinking about how we can take it to the next level, how we can potentially make it a commercial crop,’ he says.

‘We’re interested in how we can get enough yield that we could actually produce enough for food; that’s a challenge, but we think we can and we’re quite excited about what we can do with it.’
This is an extract from an article by ABS’s Bush Telegraph. See the full Article here.