Australian plant scientists receive international recognition for drought-proof wheat

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Drought-stunted wheat Image credit: flickr User: agrilifetoday

Professor Graham Farquhar and Dr Richard Richards from Canberra have been awarded the prestigious 2014 Rank Prize for crop husbandry and crop production for pioneering research which led to the development of new wheat varieties that flourish in dry conditions.

Drought-stunted wheat Image credit: flickr User:  agrilifetoday
Drought-stunted wheat
Image credit: flickr User: agrilifetoday

Speaking about their ground-breaking and award-winning breakthrough, Mr Farquhar and Mr Richards said the discovery was far from an overnight success.

“We were both very passionate about improving the water use efficiency of wheat,” Dr Richards said.

“The yields in Australia are five times less than what they are in the United Kingdom, so there are massive opportunities for improvement if crops use water efficiently and effectively.”

Water supply continues to be the greatest limitation for grain production and agriculture world-wide. In the early 1980s the scientists discovered a new way to identify drought-proof wheat.

“We were able to screen the leaves which gave us an indicator of plants that grew more for the same amount of water,” Dr Richards said.

Nearly two decades later the Australian National University (ANU) and the the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientists succeeded in breeding new commercial varieties that grew 10 % more, but with the same amount of water.

“That meant a 10% increase in yield in the driest conditions, sometimes more than that,” he said. According to the article on Yahoo, Professor Graham Farquhar and Dr Richard Richards named their first two commercial releases after the famous Australian landscape artists Russell Drysdale and Lloyd Rees.

The original Drysdale and Rees wheat varieties have been out-dated, but they are still heavily used in breeding programs particularly in Spain, Syria and Iraq.

“We have shown that there are techniques available to select wheats that either need less water to yield, or yield more for the same limited amount of water,” ANU Professor Graham Farquhar said.

The Canberra-based researchers have also implemented their technique to barley and chickpea crops in other water-limited nations including India and Canada. Dr Richards said he was surprised to be nominated by peers for the prestigious 2014 Rank Prize for innovation excellence. He and his research partner have received $150,000 prize money.

“It was an enormous thrill,” he said. “My intention is to use it in some way to support younger scientists to get into crop improvement.” Professor Farquhar jokingly says he has other plans with his share of the prize money.

“I just heard Richard speaking of very noble things, but I think I will look around at fast cars or loose women or something like that,” he said.

CSIRO plant scientist Dr Hal Hatch is the only other Australian to have claimed the prestigious Rank Prize 33 years ago.