“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
” 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 Hickeyled 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 cops 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

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
Grain Growers’ Limited 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

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

“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.”

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