Australian Scientists Develop Enhanced Crops To Feed The Poor Using Traditional Selective Breeding
Nance HaxtonAustralian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
The crops are not genetically modified but are developed by selective breeding, the seeds can be saved and shared by even the poorest farmers.
This is a transcript from PM. The program is broadcast around Australia at 5:10pm on Radio National and 6:10pm on ABC Local Radio
Poverty and hunger often go hand in hand, and scientists in South Australia have been trying to do something new to feed the poor.
Scientists at the University of Adelaide's Agricultural Research Institute have been developing so-called "super crops", basic staples with extra nutrients or vitamins built in.
It's estimated that around the world 800 million people go hungry every day, and many more, while they do fill their bellies, are not getting all the nutrients they need.
Nance Haxton reports from Adelaide.
NANCE HAXTON: It's a dream that Professor Robin Graham has had for more than a decade: solve the world's hunger and nutritional problems by boosting the nutrients in the food that is grown.
Today, South Australian research headed by Professor Graham is now an integral part of a worldwide breeding program that has already sent high iron rice to the Philippines and Vitamin A boosted sweet potatoes to South Africa.
ROBIN GRAHAM: It's quite an exciting prospect because we're really trying to use agriculture to help to improve nutritional help of people.
NANCE HAXTON: Is it really possible? Are we on the brink of being able to solve world hunger? This is something people have pondered and tried to do for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
ROBIN GRAHAM: Well, our objective is to breed greater nutrient density into the most important crops, the big cereal crops like wheat, rice and maize that feed most of the world's people, breed higher amounts of these nutrients into those crops, and to do so, to piggy-back this nutritional quality onto the highest yielding varieties.
And that way, farmers will want to grow them in the poor countries and so the impact, we hope, will be assured.
NANCE HAXTON: Professor Graham first discussed the idea with Professor Ross Welch at Cornell University in the United States 12 years ago.
Professor Welch is now visiting his old friend in Australia and says he is amazed at the progress that has been made.
ROSS WELCH: If you look at the number of deaths per year from diet-related disease it's approaching 24 million a year that lose their lives due to malnutrition, primarily from micronutrient malnutrition. And in the scheme of things that's much, much more than you can attribute to any other type of death, be it the occupational health and safety, AIDS, smoking, you name it. It doesn't even come close to those numbers.
So this is a massive problem globally and it comes from the fact that agriculture sees itself in production, in farming, in Ag industry and not part of nutrition.
On the other side of the coin you have nutritionists and health care officials thinking that malnutrition is a disease and they want to treat it. They want to fortify foods and supplement people with pills. But the root cause of the problem lies with agriculture not producing the nutrients in adequate quantities on a timely basis to feed the world.
NANCE HAXTON: So this really is about treating the cause and not the disease.
ROSS WELCH: That's right, that's right, getting rid of the root cause.
NANCE HAXTON: South Australia's micronutrient deficient soils have proven to be an ideal starting point for the research as they replicate the conditions faced by many farmers in developing nations.
The project also aims to develop fertiliser that is nutrient rich and can be used to further boost the crops' nutritional value.
Researcher James Stangoulis proudly walks around the crops being grown on the University of Adelaide's grounds at Urrbrae.
JAMES STANGOULIS: This is what will be grown up in Northern India, it's very similar, which is our primary area for targeting, for wheat anyway.
NANCE HAXTON: He says because the crops are not genetically modified but are developed by selective breeding, the seeds can be saved and shared by even the poorest farmers.
He says they hope to eventually develop a range of nutrient rich foods that can be used by cultures around the world.
JAMES SCANGOULIS: In South America… I've just come back from South America where I went to Peru. Potatoes are big in their diet there, and so that's a major focus for that region. Whereas if you go to, say, North India where they eat a lot of Chapati, and so wheat is a major focus for us in that region. Bangladesh - rice, and so on.
NANCE HAXTON: It must be very exciting to be even a small part of such a huge worldwide project.
JAMES SCANGOULIS: Absolutely. It's very exciting, and there are so many activities going on.