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Incan efficiency to fix food

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Professor Jill Gready. Photo by Karen Edwards.

Far from being an ancient food making a boutique comeback, Professor Jill Gready of The John Curtin School of Medical Research thinks quinoa and other traditional crops could be the key to the looming food security crisis.

“Food just isn’t on the public horizon and it should be,” says Gready. “We’re going to be struggling to produce enough food, so we should be concentrating on producing quality food from crops that can grow sustainably under harsh conditions with lower water and fertilizer needs.”

Gready thinks this quality can come from so-called Inca crops like quinoa, kiwicha and kaniwa, as well as native varieties of potato, and other ‘lost crops’, such as those of Africa.

“They’re very nutritious compared with global staple crops and they grow in the high altitude Andean regions under conditions that make you wonder why people persevered there.”

Working with a university in Ecuador, Gready is searching for wild varieties of Incan crops with efficient versions of the photosynthesis enzyme Rubisco, with the intention of breeding these qualities into better crops for farmers’ fields.

“There’s certainly going to be some superior Rubiscos over there because they are at high altitude where photosynthesis is very compromised, with the thinner air having a much lower concentration of the CO2 needed to power Rubisco’s action. These plants are obviously doing something very clever.”

In addition to finding Rubiscos Nature has already improved, Gready has been using the NCI facilities to  re-engineer Rubisco in the lab, creating a technology that “has all the bells and whistles and patents of high biotech”.

Gready’s two Rubisco-improvement technologies complement each other, as she says “there are horses for courses, depending on the crop, farmers’ needs and growing conditions”.

“I insisted right from the beginning that this technology must be available to be put into crops for farmers in developing countries on cost-free licenses. I was told that the commercial sector funding development wouldn’t agree to that, but I managed to persuade them.”

It’s this strong sense of social responsibility and her portfolio of research to help food security that earned Gready the 2013 Future Justice Prize. She is working with colleagues at ANU and the new ANU Food Policy Institute, and others nationally and internationally, to ensure her research is acted upon.

“Food security presents in different ways than the Australian public is used to,” says Gready. “It’s no longer just a famine in Africa with graphic video coverage of clearly starving people, who don’t have enough energy to fight.

“We’ve seen countries today that were moving from abject poverty to being able to have enough affordable food to start doing other things, like educating their children. Then, with tripling and quadrupling food prices, they get put back to where they were before.”

By Casey Hamilton, originally published by ANU News

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