Dr Lee Hickey's version of 2030 features robots, drones and intelligent machines as common place on farms, helping to reduce labour costs and chemical use.
The University of Queensland researcher has crafted a narrative based around "Farmer Tim" in 2030.
In the story, which Dr Hickey told at an Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering conference, it's June 2030, mid-way through the winter wheat growing season and Tim gets an urgent message.
One day Tim receives a notification on his iPhone version 26.
His crop management app is warning him of an outbreak of yellow spot, a pretty nasty disease. The monitoring drone has detected the disease in the paddock while Tim was taking a shower. Tim slides through his management options and instructs his sprayer drone to take care of the problem. The drone, like the tractor, knows every inch of the farm and flies straight to the paddock with the disease. But instead of deploying a traditional fungicide, the drone applies to the crop, RNA that is specially designed to silence the gene in the pathogen that is required for producing the spores.
So instead of spending eight hours spraying his crop, Tim goes to the footy with his mates. In his lab, Dr Hickey has developed a process called "speed breeding", in intensive 24 hour lighting and controlled temperatures - a process inspired by how NASA grows food for astronauts in long space missions.
"A big limitation in developing new varieties can take up to 20 years," Dr Hickey said.
"But in speed breeding we can achieve up to seven generations of wheat per year under constant lighting.
"It's a fantastic tool for selecting for traits and manipulating genes in the right combinations. So we can fast track the variety developing down to five to six years."
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Dr Lee Hickey and Anika Molesworth discuss the future of farming in Australia and southeast Asia
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In a world first, researchers from The University of Queensland have identified a key gene in barley that enables the plant to access water stored deep in the soil during droughts.
Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation’s Dr Lee Hickey said the gene promoted narrow root growth, which allowed the plant to grow roots that penetrate down to water stored deep within the soil.
“This may be one of the most exciting research findings to ever come out of my lab,” he said.
“PhD student Hannah Robinson has undertaken the first study of its kind that aims to connect root architecture to yield in barley. Her findings will impact everything from predicting yield to modelling.
“Even in a drought, there is water deep underground and to be able to breed plants with the type of root system to access this water means growers can maintain barley yields in drought conditions.”
A former medical student turned plant scientist, Ms Robinson has identified the gene across the barley and wheat species. “Our latest findings demonstrate that the gene for narrow root growth provides a significant yield advantage throughout Queensland and New South Wales,” Ms Robinson said.
“Even before the harvesters hit the paddock, the lack of rain caused by the current El Niño has stripped around half a billion dollars in yield from the wheat industry and looks set to also have a major impact on the barley industry,” she said.
“While barley crops on the Australian east coast enter the critical grain filling period, there appears to be no relief in sight as the next few months are forecast to be drier than average.”
Australia is the 8th largest barley producer worldwide, producing around 7.5 million tonnes of barley annually.
Most barley in Australia is used for animal feed and beer production, but in North Africa and Southwest Asia, barley is a main staple food.
“Worldwide, the largest limitation on barley production is water,” said Ms Robinson.
“Dry seasons mean lower yield and less profit for farmers. The effect is more severe in droughts and El Niño weather events.”
Ms Robinson’s barley research has been undertaken with support from a Grains Research Development Corporation scholarship.
Integrating modern plant breeding technologies to wheat production is vital to sustain global populations in the future, according to some researchers. Dr Lee Hickey, research fellow at the University of Queensland, will be running a workshop looking at 'speed breeding' and the use of drones at the 9th International Wheat Conference in Sydney next week. Dr Hickey and other scientists at the university developed speed breeding in 2013 from technologies developed by NASA.
Speed breeding accelerates the genetic gain in wheat, and is resistant to stripe rust and pre-harvest sprouting, which are common reasons for yield loss. "It's a great tool to develop wheat varieties faster [because] wheat breeding is slow; it can take 10 sometimes 20 years to develop a new and improved variety," Dr Hickey said.
"Companies are starting to use it now to breed varieties in Australia which is fantastic." Dr Hickey said other emerging technologies are also proving valuable for farmers on the field. He said the workshops at the global conference are aimed at early career breeders and scientists. "It's very important that we are attracting young people into science and wheat improvement," he said.
"We need new ideas, we need to be thinking outside of the box because we face some pretty big challenges in the future to grow a growing population."
source: abc website
"We need new ideas, we need to be thinking outside of the box because we face some pretty big challenges in the future to grow a growing population.
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Are GMOs and organic foods compatible?
Dr Lee Hickey chat with Professor Ian Godwin from The University of Queensland about genetically modified food crops.
Ian believes that GMO foods and organic agriculture are perfectly compatible. He explains that scientists are creating GMO plants to achieve a more sustainable agriculture. The idea is to create plants resistant to pests and diseases, that don’t require the use of chemicals, but provide the same productivity and food quality.
He points out that our beloved “organic” potato is actually sprayed with copper to control disease and the use of copper fungicides in organic farming may be resulting in increased levels of copper in the soil and the food we eat.
So maybe it’s time we embrace GMOs for more sustainable agriculture and healthier food?
If you are after more information about this topic, below are a few good articles to get you started.
This article illustrates Ian’s example about the potato, traditional breeding won't work and production requires a lot of pesticides:
A huge meta analysis showing how GMOs have reduced pesticide use wherever it has been adopted.
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