University of Melbourne Magazine

The food fighters

  • By Gary Tippet

    Professor Timothy Reeves

    Professor Timothy Reeves

    You might say Tim Reeves was born to agriculture. His family came from Kingston on Thames, just 15km from London, but in the last year of World War II his pregnant mother was evacuated from the heavily-bombed city.

    “I was actually born in a farming village and lived my first few months of life on a farm,” he says. “I’m thinking that’s where I caught the farming bug.”

    An interest in biology took him into agriculture at the University of Nottingham and a talent for rugby brought him to Rutherglen in north-east Victoria after a State Department of Agriculture official correctly guessed he could transition to the indigenous game and knew the local team was looking for players.

    Now, 150 games later, the former Director-General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and now Professor in Residence at the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Science, Dookie, Reeves advocates “sustainable intensification” – making agriculture more sustainable and also more productive to meet global nutritional needs.

    “We have to have much greater diversity in our farming systems. I’m confident we can meet these challenges because we’re as good as any country in the world at scientists and farmers working together to help adapt our agricultural systems.”

    Dr Dorin Gupta

    Dr Dorin Gupta

    Dorin Gupta believes she was blessed to grow up in Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayan ranges of north India. “I was born and brought up in nature,” she says. “I’ve seen how nature works in harmony.”

    Dr Gupta moved to Australia in 2012 and is senior lecturer in sustainable agriculture at Dookie campus where she focuses on resource-efficient production systems with the inclusion of technology, pre-breeding and breeding to increase disease and drought-resistance. She is researching unexplored wild lentil seeds for disease and drought-resistant genes that have been bred out of commercial crops.

    “The world is primarily reliant on three major crops: wheat, rice and corn. We have narrowed down the diversity of crops so much. There are more than 50,000 edible plants on Earth, and we are almost totally reliant on a handful, maybe 14 or 15, and those three are the major energy providers for most of the world.

    “With the changing environment, we need more diverse and native crops we can tap into current production systems. They won’t replace the three staple crops but will be part and parcel of adding more diversity and especially resilience, because you don’t have to do much to them – they have been tried and tested by time.”

    Professor Philip Batterham

    Professor Philip Batterham

    Philip Batterham was struck by a mural he saw on Facebook recently. It showed a honeybee with the grim promise: “When we go, we’re taking you all with us.”

    Some scientists have warned that we face an ‘insect apocalypse’. A 2014 analysis of 452 species estimated that insect abundance had dropped 45 per cent over 40 years. In April this year, a study warned four in 10 insect species could become extinct. And, echoing that bee on Facebook, Harvard entomologist E O Wilson warned we could follow. Without insects, other life, and humanity “would mostly disappear … And within a few months”. Widespread use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids, has been blamed.

    Professor Batterham, a global leader in the genetics of insecticide resistance at the School of BioSciences’ Bio21 Institute, has devoted his career to better and alternative pest control and, lately, to the downstream effects of low doses of insecticides on the environment and other insect species.

    “But one thing I should say about insecticides is that, while people are looking at their downsides, without them there’d be a whole lot less food in the world,” he says. “We cannot just stop using these chemicals; we need to find effective and safe alternatives.”

    Professor Ary Hoffmann

    Professor Ary Hoffmann

    As a boy on his family’s vegetable farm near Christchurch, New Zealand, Ary Hoffmann developed a keen interest in bugs; beetles, wasps and lacewings were everywhere on the farm, some bugs preying on others.

    “My father certainly spent a lot of his time spraying,” he says, “And I always thought, ‘This is crazy, we can’t keep going like this’.”

    Young Ary was ahead of the curve. Now, Melbourne Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne School of BioSciences, and a past president of the Australian Entomological Society, Professor Hoffmann works on integrated pest controls, including bacterial parasites, to block the spread of viruses.

    “We can’t rely on broad-spectrum pesticides anymore,” he says. “They’re not selective. You’re not just killing one particular pest but a lot of different insects – also the many parasitoid wasps and the beetles that can potentially control the pests. There’s a whole lot of good guys out there.

    “We need to change our thinking and come up with new ways of doing it. But those new ways have to make economic sense, and therein lies the challenge, because people want to pay less for their loaf of bread, not more.”

    Dr Rachel Carey

    Dr Rachel Carey

    One of the attractions that enticed Rachel Carey, when she moved to Melbourne from England 20 years ago, was the city’s famed food culture. Now, she is protecting and enhancing that aspect of her adopted home.

    A lecturer in food systems at Dookie, Dr Carey was the lead author of Roadmap for a Resilient and Sustainable Melbourne Foodbowl, which outlines the keys – including recycling water and organic waste, and protection of inner farmland viability – to ensuring the fertile fringe continues to provide some of Melbourne’s fresh food needs.

    Originally working in the field of human-centred design, Dr Carey combined her experience and passion for good food to collaboratively designing food systems that are healthy and sustainable, while designing policy to support that.

    “I think we’re not really aware of how dependent Melbourne’s food culture is on the quality of fresh food that’s grown around the city,” she says. “I’d like to think future generations will be able to source that same quality of food.

    “The consequence of not protecting these areas is we lose our supply of fresh, local food. As we become more dependent on more distant sources of food, we’ll have a less resilient food supply.”

    Associate Professor Alex Johnson

    Associate Professor Alex Johnson

    Alex Johnson’s interest in plants bloomed early. As a child in Washington DC, he would follow his mother around the backyard helping her plant flowers and vegetables, although his habit of digging them up to see how they were progressing could be annoying.

    An interest in human health almost took him to medicine, but he realised he was more attuned to plant biology. At Virginia Tech in the early years of commercialisation of genetically modified crops in the US, he realised he could combine the two, studying how biotechnology could be used to make healthier foods.

    Now at the University of Melbourne’s School of BioSciences, Dr Johnson and his team are utilising a wide range of biotech strategies to biofortify rice and wheat with essential vitamins and minerals.

    Dr Johnson says there is still resistance to GM foods, but believes it is waning. “We’ve now had 23 years of commercialised GM crops. People ask how many GM meals have been consumed and it’s trillions, and not a single health incident from any of them.

    “The papaya industry in Hawaii was wiped out by virus decades ago and the only way back was GM. I was in Hawaii recently and made a point of eating a lot of GM papaya. It was delicious.”

    Read more: Replenishing the global food bowl