A hungrier, wealthier, choosier, smarter, riskier world: five challenges for Australian agriculture

Canola crop near Ardlethan, NSW.

Canola crop near Ardlethan, NSW.

Sandra Eady, CSIRO and Stefan Hajkowicz, CSIRO

You don’t need a crystal ball to know Australia’s rural industries will face significant change at global, national and local levels over the coming decades. This will create opportunities and challenges for small and large farms, and will affect rural lifestyles, agricultural landscapes and Australia’s society and economy.

In a new report, we describe this future through a series of interlinked “megatrends” set to hit Australia over the coming 20 years. As we describe below, each prompts some serious questions (or “conversation-starters”, as we have termed them) for Australian farmers. We don’t yet know the answers, but we do know they will be crucial for how the industry fares in the future.

Megatrends impacting Australian rural industries RIRDC/CSIRO

The world will get hungrier

We know that the world is going to require more food as populations grow – about 70% more by 2050, according to the United Nations. This will come primarily from increasing yields, along with some expansion of agricultural land.

The target is achievable but should not be taken for granted. There are competing uses of land for biofuels and urbanisation; in some places land is degrading; and we don’t have good predictions yet of the effect of climate change on agriculture. As a significant exporter of food, Australia has a vital role to play in supplying world food markets and buffering supply shocks.

We are well positioned — both in terms of geography and comparative advantage — to supply overseas markets. And while Australia can’t hope to feed Asia or the world, with astute R&D investment it can increase production and exports. How well we step up to that challenge depends largely on our ability to maintain a price competitive position and continue to improve yields. So the key questions are:

Will farms be able to scale up production and performance to meet this challenge?

What is a sensible investment in innovation, and how should it be funded?

The world will get wealthier

Some 1.02 billion people will move out of poverty and into the middle classes in the developing Asia region alone by 2040. Along with wealth comes the ability to diversify food choices – wealthier households will consume more meat, dairy and vegetable oils.

This presents an opportunity for Australian rural industries to identify new food types and connect to new markets. A diversified rural export base is likely to be more resilient to supply-and-demand shocks in markets.

Is Australia better off focusing on commodity markets that have provided solid export earnings, or should it be working hard to respond to the demand for a more diverse range of boutique, luxury and niche food and fibre goods?

Does Australia have the infrastructure and the persistence to get a wider range of desirable agricultural products into Asian markets competitively?

The recent free trade deal with China has helped open up market access for some Australian rural industries to this very large population of increasingly wealthy consumers. CSIRO

Customers will get pickier

The consumer of the future will be increasingly able and motivated to choose food and fibre products with certain characteristics. This has impacts both within and beyond the farm gate. Information technology will increasingly enable the consumer to access, share and validate information about products along the whole supply chain from farm to fork.

Health is likely to become a particularly prominent driver of food choice and consumption patterns – be that from a desire for food safety or to help prevent chronic disease. Many people’s lives are being cut short by poor diets, and at current trajectories government budgets could become crippled by unsustainable growth in healthcare expenditure.

The issues of environment, provenance and ethics will also play a vital role. The consumer of the future will have greater expectations for these qualities in the food and fibre products they choose to buy. Consumers will be “information-empowered” and rural industries stand to gain or lose market share based on this increase in consumers’ knowledge.

In the face of soaring diet-related health costs, will governments increase control of the components of food and diets?

How does agriculture in Australia build and safeguard its clean, green reputation?

Technologies will transform farm life

Advances in digital technology, genetics and materials science will change the way food and fibre products are created and transported.

Many plant productivity breakthroughs will be from gene technology. Big data systems and digital technologies will bring better risk-management approaches to Australian agriculture; weather and yields will be much more predictable and farmers will have sophisticated tools to assist with decision making.

Knowledge about land use and framing practices will increasingly move into the public domain as remote monitoring, be it from drones or satellites, makes available new data in a highly interconnected world. Business and capital models will change with the introduction of “disruptive” technologies such as peer-to-peer lending.

Will market perceptions hold back Australian agriculture by restricting access to advanced technologies being used by our major competitors?

How will farmers manage a higher level of scrutiny of their operations?

The rollercoaster of risks will get bumpier

Risk is an ever-present characteristic of Australian agriculture. However, the coming decades will see changes in the global climate, environmental systems and the world economy which will create new and potentially deeper risks for farmers.

Australian agriculture has shown a strong capacity to adapt and respond to risks in the past. But as trade globalises and we rely more on imported inputs such as fertiliser and fuel, the risk of supply chain shocks increases.

More international trade and passenger travel brings greater biosecurity risks. Climate change impacts are not well understood, and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions will set up competing land uses for both biofuels and carbon storage.

Do we understand the likely implications of a global price on carbon of US$50-100 per tonne?

Is the agriculture sector at risk of complacency and underinvestment when it comes to risk management?

Overall, there is a bright future for Australian agriculture, laden with deep and diverse opportunity. The future outlined above will be a challenge for some producers and industries but an opportunity for others. The effectiveness with which Australian agriculture captures these opportunities and avoids the risks will largely come down to innovation.

Through centuries past, repeated innovation has allowed Australian farmers to expand into new land areas, develop water resources and increase crop and pasture yields. As we look to the decades ahead, innovation becomes ever more important. In a world of exponential growth in both technology and global trade, it’s about working smarter, not just harder.

The Conversation

Sandra Eady is Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Agriculture at CSIRO and Stefan Hajkowicz is Leader – CSIRO Futures at CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Stop the junk: why Australia scored a ‘C’ for diet

A well balanced diet is essential to good health.

A well-balanced diet is essential to good health.

The results are in: Australia, you’re just not cutting it.

So say the findings of our Healthy Diet Score Survey, a scientifically validated survey that assessed people’s diet quality against the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Over 40,000 people participated in the survey, which evaluated a person’s diet based on variety, frequency and quantity of the essential food groups, as well as individual attributes such as age and gender.

The average score? Only 61/100.

Our consumption of the dreaded ‘discretionary snacks’ – aka junk food – was most to blame, with Aussies on average consuming three times the recommended amount.

According to Professor Manny Noakes, our Research Director for Nutrition and Health and the co-author of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Online, the results were concerning.

“The scores were fairly unflattering across all respondents. If we were handing out report cards for diet quality, then Australia would only get a C.”

“While many people scored highly in categories such as water intake and the variety of foods consumed, there is certainly lots of room for improvement in other areas,” said Manny.

There were other positives, including the Coffs Harbour and Grafton region being named as home to Australia’s healthiest eaters (it must be all of those big bananas?).

Overall it was a disappointing outcome – and we can confirm our media team are no dietary angels – but we’re not here to lecture you in words.

We have an infographic for that instead:

dietscore_CSIRO

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re all moving to Coffs.

Haven’t taken the survey yet? Put that Freddo Frog down and give it a whirl.


Pre-pear yourself: have we ended the fruitless search for hangover prevention?

Pears: the low hanging fruit of hangover prevention?

Pears: the low hanging fruit of hangover prevention?

A tall glass of milk to line the stomach. Bouts of water between drinks. Pre-loading with carbs. Everyone, it seems, has their own tried and true method for preventing hangovers (how often they actually work is a different story altogether). But sure-fire ways of sidestepping the dreaded headaches, nausea and general discombobulation that can follow drinking sessions are rarely scientifically studied, instead living in the realms of onions-in-your-socks-to-prevent-colds-type remedies.

Yes, the search for a miracle prevention of hangovers has been fruitless – until now.

The pears have it

We’ve been researching pears with Horticulture Innovation Australia to discover the hidden benefits of the humble backyard fruit – beyond being cheaper than apples.

As well as finding that pears can lower cholesterol, relieve constipation and have anti-inflammatory effects, it also appears they can ward off hangovers AND lower blood alcohol levels.

In what could be one of the greatest ‘stumbled upon’ scientific findings since we discovered fast WiFi, this secret pear power has the potential to stimulate Friday afternoon pear purchases world-wide.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves…

hangover cat

We spoke to Professor Manny Noakes, our lead researcher on the project, to get the full slice on pears.

Are there any types of pears that work better than other? And what’s the best way to consume them?
At present, studies have only investigated the Korean (or Asian) pear, which has long been used as a traditional remedy for alcohol hangover.  A number of compositional differences have been noted between the Korean pear and Western pear varieties, so further studies are needed to confirm these findings to determine whether these results could be replicated using other pear varieties.  So far the effect has been seen from consuming 220ml Korean pear juice, although consumption of whole pears may produce a similar effect.

How exactly do the pears prevent hangovers – how did we find this out?
There may be several ways by which pears could prevent hangovers. Our review has uncovered both animal and human studies trying to answer this question. It appears that the factors in Korean pears act on the key enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) to speed up alcohol metabolism and elimination or inhibition of alcohol absorption. In particular, reductions were seen in blood acetaldehyde levels, the toxic metabolic thought to be responsible for the hangover symptoms, with pear juice consumption.  

Headshot of Manny Noakes

Our health guru, Professor Manny Noakes.

What hangover symptoms can pears prevent?
Overall hangover severity, as measured by a 14 item hangover symptom scale, was significantly reduced in the Korean pear group compared to those having a placebo drink, with the most pronounced effect seen on the specific symptom of ‘trouble concentrating’.

Can I pear-binge after drinking to cure my hangover?
NO. The effect was only demonstrated if pears were consumed before alcohol consumption. There is no evidence that you can consume pears after drinking and avoid a hangover.
And remember, the very best way to not get a hangover is to not drink in the first place.

Manny also warns this is only a preliminary scoping study, with the results yet to be finalised. Ultimately, her team hope to deliver a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on pears, pear components and relevant health measures. We’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Still thirsty for more? Here’s some other ways we’re helping Australians with their diet and health.


We’re kneading our way to bread that lowers cholesterol

That's how we (bread) roll: a cholesterol absorbing bread could have incredible health benefits for the community

That’s how we (bread) roll: a cholesterol absorbing bread could have incredible health benefits for the community

If we were to tell you that you could lower your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease – by eating bread, would you be up for it?

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But maybe it isn’t. We’re trying to make it possible using gene technology and plant breeding techniques to develop new superior wheat varieties.

Why is cholesterol such an issue? Cholesterol is an essential type of fat that is carried in the blood. It’s vital to healthy cell function and hormone regulation, among other things, but too much of it in our bloodstream can be a bad thing – damaging our arteries and leading to heart disease. In fact, the World Health Organisation has estimated that raised cholesterol is estimated to cause 2.6 million deaths annually.

It’s no wonder our scientists have been researching foods to help lower the prevalence of cholesterol related illnesses in the community. And it looks like we’re on to something.

We know that barley and oat grains contain high levels of a soluble fibre called betaglucan (1-3 ,1-4 betaglucan), which can reduce cholesterol reabsorption in the gut. This leads to healthier blood cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, wheat (which is one of the most commonly consumed grains in the world) has low levels of betaglucan and it has a slightly different structure to the oat and barley betaglucan, which makes it insoluble.

Betaglucan is made by an enzyme that sits in the membrane at the surface of the plant cell. This enzyme links activated glucose sugars from within the cell and pushes the growing betaglucan polymer chain through a pore in the membrane into the cell wall surrounding the cell.

Betaglucan is made by an enzyme that sits in the membrane at the surface of the plant cell. This enzyme links activated glucose sugars from within the cell and pushes the growing betaglucan polymer chain through a pore in the membrane into the cell wall surrounding the cell. Click on the image for an animated version of the diagram, by Lisa Jobling.

So at the moment, it’s not possible to get cholesterol-lowering benefits from breads unless they have added barley or oat flour. This affects the taste and texture of the bread, which is why people generally prefer bread that’s made wholly from wheat flour. What we want is a bread that maximises the health benefits without sacrificing the flavour and texture that consumers want.

We now know why betaglucan in barley and oats is soluble but in wheat it’s not – and it’s to do with tiny differences between the enzymes that work in barley and oats compared with the one working in wheat to create the betaglucan. In ground breaking research just published, we’ve discovered that just one amino acid (the building blocks of enzymes) difference in the enzyme that forms betaglucan can change the structure and make it more soluble. By changing that one amino acid in the wheat enzyme we should be able to make wheat with more soluble betaglucan and cholesterol lowering properties.

In a proof of principle experiment, we used gene technology to take the gene that makes betaglucan in oats and expressed it in wheat grain. This showed we can simultaneously increase the amount of betaglucan and change its structure making it as soluble as barley betaglucan. We did this in trials using genetically modified plants, a great tool to gain knowledge. We’re using them as a small-scale means to test what’s possible and understand exactly what we need to look for when we get to the next stage which doesn’t involve genetic modification.

The trial wheat plants were grown in a controlled field trial (approved by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) to get enough grain to evaluate the suitability for bread-making and potential health benefits such as lowering the level of cholesterol reabsorption. If this is successful, we plan to use conventional breeding techniques to develop a wheat for public consumption. This is more difficult and will take a while longer but we think it’s possible.

Our field of dreams

The controlled wheat trial: This is where we are testing how the modified wheat grows

If you’d like to know more about this research and the technical bits check out our webpage or be daring and go straight to the research on Science Advances.


The Showdown: Total Wellbeing and the 5:2 Diet

Studies have shown intermittent fasting can fend off illnesses including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders and may improve insulin sensitivity - but there is still a lot more to learn.

Some studies have shown intermittent fasting can fend off illnesses including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders and may improve insulin sensitivity – but there is still a lot more to learn.

This blog was originally published on the Total Wellbeing Diet website. 

Fans of intermittent fasting programs – think the 5:2 diet – often find they have success with weight loss, so today we are taking a look at the pros and cons of this kind of diet.

While fasting technically refers to not consuming any food or liquid at all, intermittent ‘fasting’ diets, like the 5:2 diet, do involve very minimal calorific intake on the fasting days – we’re talking around 2000 kilojoules all day, compared to the daily recommended intake of around 10,000 for men and 8,700 for women.  These diets run on the premise that you fast for 2 days of the week and consume as many kilojoules as you like on the non-fasting days.

While 5:2 is the most popular configuration, others find they have more success following a 4:3 or 6:1 ratio of non-fasting to fasting days.

The surprising news is, studies are suggesting these diets are successful in achieving weight loss. Even more surprising, Dr Manny Noakes, Research Director of our Food and Nutrition Flagship, says research is revealing people don’t eat more than they usually would on the non-fasting days – which was what many experts expected to see.

The research is still limited, but Dr Noakes says animal studies have been optimistic. Some of these animal studies have shown intermittent fasting can fend off illnesses including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders and may improve insulin sensitivity.

Dr Noakes says she herself would not discourage someone following such a diet that was seeing success, though she cautions there is still a lot to learn before it gets the seal of approval.

“If people who are overweight have struggled to lose weight following other diets, and they find this works for them, then that is great. Weight loss, particularly belly fat, has many health benefits – visceral fat is involved in disrupting blood-sugar regulation and is associated with high cholesterol levels. It’s also a risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

On the flipside, Dr Noakes says what we don’t yet know about intermittent fasting is what these diets mean for long term health.

If the person is simply losing weight because they are effectively cutting a lot of kilojoules from their weekly intake, but they are still eating poorly, then I’d have to argue they still need to address their eating habits for longer term health gain.

She says while restricting your kilojoule intake is a guaranteed way to lose weight, cutting back indiscriminately can lead to an unbalanced, unhealthy diet, and recommends a more balanced approach. “It’s important not to cut key food groups including dairy, grains and cereals – you’ll be missing out on some important nutrients essential for good health.”

To summarise the pros and cons:

ON THE PRO SIDE:

  • Loss of body fat/ weight for overweight people is of health benefit in general.
  • Early research shows contrary to what scientists expected to see, people do not consume more kilojoules on the non-fasting days.
  • Intermittent fasting diets seem to be as effective as calorie restricted diets for weight loss.
  • There is early research to suggest it is effective in curbing cravings.
  • It provides an easier weight loss plan than standard kilojoule restricting diets – there is no weighing or ‘forbidden’ foods to worry about – on the fasting day, the limited calories will be accounted for very quickly and there are no restrictions on non-fasting days.

ON THE CON SIDE:

  • Fasting diets don’t change the way you eat – there is no evidence at this stage that suggests people eat healthier food than they did prior to starting the diet. While maintaining a healthy body weight is important for good health; a nutritious diet offers important vitamin and minerals.
  • There is limited research on the long term effectiveness – or any long term health issues related to intermittent fasting.
  • This lack of research means we don’t know who the diet works for and who it might not – for example, what medications or illnesses it may interact badly with.
  • Unlike diets that make healthy lifestyle changes – like the Total Wellbeing Diet – fasting diets do not provide advice on how to eat for optimal health, in a way that is sustainable in the long run.

Find out more about how we’re helping transform Australia with our innovative food and health science. 


Cracking good science on egg allergens

scientists with egg

Pathum Dhanapala (Deakin) and Tim Doran (CSIRO) have made a breakthrough in their bid to create allergy-free eggs. Image: Mitch Bear

This article was written by Lucie Van den Berg and first appeared in the Herald Sun

What came first – the chicken with the switched off allergen gene, or the allergy-free egg? Our scientists have been working with Deakin University to develop an egg that doesn’t cause allergic reactions, and it’s all about changing the chicken.

In a world first, the team has also created synthetic versions of all four egg white proteins in the lab.

Our own Dr Tim Doran, and Deakin University’s Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu, said it was one of the first critical steps towards developing allergy-free eggs to make life easier for people with allergies and improve the safety of medications made with eggs, such as flu vaccines.

There are 40 proteins in egg white, but four major ­allergens that cause the ­majority of reactions.

Almost 9 per cent of Victorian infants have an egg ­allergy at 12 months of age, which can lead to dermatitis, asthma, vomiting or gut irritation.

Dr Doran, who has a daughter with such an allergy, said they were used in such a wide range of foods and products, including cosmetics and medication.

Associate Professor Suphioglu said they created all four versions of egg white proteins in the lab and switched off the allergenic ­response in one protein, which is responsible for the majority of allergies.

“We have developed the synthetic versions of the allergens, which are more pure and standardised than the natural extract, which would be useful for both skin-prick testing and immunotherapy,” he said.

Immunotherapy aims to give people tiny amounts of the allergen in a controlled medical setting to induce ­desensitisation or tolerance.

The advantage of switching off the allergenic part of the egg white protein would be that the patient would be less likely to have a dangerous allergic reaction during treatment.

Together with PhD candidate Pathum Dhanapala, the scientist’s ultimate aim is to modify the proteins in egg whites to produce chickens that lay allergy-free eggs.

Professor Mimi Tang, from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Royal Children’s Hospital, said the synthetic protein could one day be useful in immunotherapy trials for allergies, but it was very early to be talking about clinical applications of the research.

“I think the major barriers to overcome with this product for it to be useful is to determine if it can be used to modulate immune responses and induce desensitisation or tolerance,” Prof Tang said.

The research is published in the journal Molecular ­Immunology.


Rotating sea cucumbers is kind of a big deal

Thelenota ananas (the Prickly Redfish)

Thelenota ananas (the Prickly Redfish)

By Chris Gerbing 

The poor old sea cucumber doesn’t fare very well in the oceanic food chain. They’re slow-moving, (cu)cumbersome creatures that are considered a delicacy by us humans… and they even cop the brunt of Nemo’s swim up comedy routine. But they’re also an important source of income for many coastal communities around the world, particularly in the South Pacific. This is why they need to be rotated (but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Sea cucumbers, when processed and dried, are turned into bêche-de-mer, which is considered a delicacy in Chinese culture. Demand for bêche-de-mer has increased markedly in the last few decades.

The ugly cousins of the star fish are part of the benthic family of marine organisms. These bottom dwelling creatures are slow and sluggish and literally cannot move quickly enough to save themselves. That combined with their easy accessibility and high value means that sea cucumber fisheries around the world are easily overfished and many fisheries have collapsed.

In Australia, the Queensland east coast bêche-de-mer fishery is perhaps Queensland’s oldest, with harvesting starting in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing up until the beginning of WWII. A revival of the fishery did not occur until the late 1980s. With this resurgence new management systems were introduced to protect the fishery. Since then various management strategies have been implemented to align with management acts and regulations that influence this fishery.

The modern Australian bêche-de-mer fishery provides to the livelihoods of fishers from coastal communities in northern Queensland. It is typical of many small scale fisheries in Queensland and Australia in that it is difficult to do a detailed stock assessment, and hence there have been few undertaken.

Queensland East Coast Beche-de-mer fishery management zones

Queensland East Coast Beche-de-mer fishery management zones

This is where the rotating sea cucumbers might start to make sense.

Management agencies and industry have attempted to mitigate risk to sea cucumber populations by introducing rotational fishing zones that limit the catch, spread the activity and improve the overall sustainability of the fishery. A management strategy that humans have used on land for centuries, rotational harvesting has been less commonly applied to marine resources.

This strategy has been applied in the Australian east coast fishery and seen the creation of 154 fishing zones that can be fished for single 15 day periods every three years. Essentially, the zones are rotated…but the effectiveness of this strategy needed testing.

Research published this week  by a CSIRO research team has shown that there are clear advantages to a spatial rotation harvest strategy. Using a quantitative modeling approach, the team showed that rotating the harvest zone improves the biological and economic performance of the fishery. They also found that lengthening the rotations out to six years can be helpful too.

The greatest benefit of rotational harvesting was measured for the slowest growing slugs in the sea, and also for the tastiest, who suffer under high fishing intensity.

Holothuria scabra (the sandfish)

Holothuria scabra (the sandfish)

This finding has applications for sea cucumber fisheries across Australian waters, as well as regional fisheries in South Pacific countries and south-east Asia. There are also global applications, particularly in other fisheries like abalone, geoduck clams and sea urchins that can be susceptible to overfishing.

There is potential for expansion of the Australian sea cucumber fishery in terms of both volume and value of products by spreading the fishery effort widely. We cannot say however if this will lead to sea cucumbers appearing on many local menus any time soon. But in the meantime, please keep your sea cucumbers rotating!


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