It’s a challenge that Flinders University plant physiologist and biochemist Professor James Stangoulis has been successfully tackling for two decades: improving the nutrition of staple food crops with remarkable biofortification breakthroughs.
“While the focus is on nutrition for human consumption, it also has the important benefit of helping to deliver higher yields on nutrient-poor soils,” says Professor Stangoulis. “The target is to improve the mega-crops.”
When international biofortification programs were initially discussed in 2003, it was seen as an ambitious idea – that agriculture would be the driving force that could deliver better nutrition to people though improved seed traits.
“Plant scientists had the ideas, but it wouldn’t have come to fruition without economists working in tandem with us,” says Professor Stangoulis. “They plugged into the necessary funding and commercial distribution channels that ensured our research would be translated into crops that would be grown in the communities that most need them.”
In collaboration with international plant breeding partners, this has enabled the team at Flinders to apply their specific expertise to address crop problems prevalent in many countries, and with staple grains that are vital to enable broad community subsistence. This has included lentils in Nepal, rice in Bangladesh and Madagascar, maize in South and Latin America, wheat in Zimbabwe and pearl millet and sorghum in India.
Crucial to this has been Flinders’ ongoing funding support from HarvestPlus, a global agricultural development organisation, with key financial supporters including the United Kingdom Government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Government’s Feed the Future initiative, Global Affair Canada, the European Commission, and donors to the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). HarvestPlus is also supported by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.
Flinders’ role has been critical in the global success of this expansive program, with the University’s analytical capability able to validate samples from all global breeding programs – to swiftly measure, assess and identify the best germplasm for further development in breeding programs. It has also played a major role in setting up analytical labs within breeding institutions worldwide, and this helps to accelerate the breeding of nutrient-dense crops.