Wild rice to provide new food source?

Posted by Isobel Drake on 18th July 2008

With increasing pressure on the world’s food stocks, scientists are investigating new ways of tapping into the genetic traits of Australia’s wild rice varieties to support food security.

The Southern Cross University Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics yesterday hosted a symposium, bringing together researchers from around Australia and Japan to discuss the potential benefits of Australia’s native rice varieties.

Professor Robert Henry, director of the Centre, said the strong demand from the rapidly growing economies of Asia had pushed up food prices globally. “Rice is probably the most important food crop in the world. Rice, wheat and maize account for almost half of all food consumed by humans. The price of these staple foods has more than doubled in the last year,” he advised. “Australian wild rices may be some of the most valuable sources of unexplored genetic diversity that may help lift world production and allow us to at least partly adapt agriculture to climate change globally. International interest in Australian wild rices is very strong.”

Dr Nicole Rice, curator of the Australian Plant DNA Bank at the University, reported that Australia had several species of rice that were related to the cultivated rice that we eat. “They grow naturally in the wild in the tropics of northern Australia, from Queensland across to Western Australia, and in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales,” she said. “They look like the cultivated rice plants and the habits of the plants are quite similar. They like warm environments and lots of water. You can eat them, but no-one has thoroughly explored their potential.

“There is a lot of interest in the genetics resources of our wild rice from overseas. Researchers are interested in tapping into traits such as disease tolerance,” Dr Rice added. “We can try and breed better rice varieties that better adapt to the climate, or have increased nutritional value.”

Professor Henry is leading a research project which aims to accelerate the domestication of native Australian grass species. He spent several weeks late last year strengthening collaborative links in wild rices with Japan at the National Institute for Agrobiological Sciences, with support of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The Centre, together with Native Seeds Pty Ltd, has an Australian Research Council grant for the three-year project, which will have a total value of close to $1 million.