Article – Wild rice key to global food security

16 June 2014
Charlie McKillop
ABC Rural
They wouldn’t look out of place in any popular bird-watching, fishing, or even duck hunting spot.
But decked out in waders and gum boots, these members of a high-level Queensland research team, are searching for something quite different.
It’s wild rice. Growing in abundance in wetlands across remote parts of northern Australia, in particular far north Queensland.
As team leader Robert Henry uses GPS coordinates to zero in on rice plots identified in several sites, covering a 200 kilometre radius from Mareeba, north to Lakefield national park, near Cooktown, his excitement is palpable.
“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, from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), 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 much promise, in a world where over-cultivation has displaced many wild populations of food sources.
Despite returning to the far north on many occasions, Professor Henry continues to be amazed by the sheer abundance of the 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, far north Queensland 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 it’s 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 inter-bred, so there is potential for the breeders to intergress any resistance genes.”
Beyond the laboratory, the QAAFI team is very focussed 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 Ian Chivers, it’s definitely a possibility.
He’s been 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.
“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 Chivers says.
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 any novel 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.
“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.”
Courtesy of ABC Rural