COFFEE BREAK: David Jordan and fellow Australian scientist professor Graeme Hammer savour a cup of coffee in true Ethiopian style.
COFFEE BREAK: David Jordan and fellow Australian scientist professor Graeme Hammer savour a cup of coffee in true Ethiopian style.

Bill Gates fund scientists feed helps our the world

FROM Warwick to Ethiopia is a long way: 10,790km, 24 hours travelling time and a world away in terms of agricultural development.

But a team of researchers from Hermitage Research Station are becoming increasingly familiar with the journey as they play a pivotal role in an international project designed to improve drought-tolerance in sorghum.

At the helm of the team is one of Australia's most experienced sorghum plant breeders Southern Downs-based Associate Professor David Jordan.

His team will work with their counterparts at Melkassa Research Station, 100km from Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, as part of $4 million international project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve sorghum productivity under drought conditions.

This week the Bush Tele talked with Dr Jordan and two of his colleagues Emma Mace and Alan Cruickshank, from Hermitage Research Station, about their role in this significant international research project.

Our interview came just days after the team leader's return from his second visit to Ethiopia.

For him the African country is a place of extremes: Where temperatures and rainfall vary as dramatically as the on-ground technology.

For example, Melkassa Research Station boasts fibre optical cable to its door providing faster internet service than Dr Jordan can get at The Hermitage, but the surrounding Ethiopian paddocks are still cultivated by ox-drawn ploughs.

There are stark contrasts between our farming operations too.

In this section of Africa, the average farm size is a hectare and the motivation for growing quality, high yielding crops centres on people's need to feed their families.

Here and on the western Downs our heavily mechanised sorghum growing focus is on commercial production and supplying the domestic livestock feed market and our paddocks can stretch towards the horizon.

But at the heart of these differences is both environments' susceptibility to drought.

"Sorghum is crucially important to food security in Africa as it is grown in the drier and resource-poor areas, where its capacity to better tolerate drought, high temperature and low fertility make it a preferred crop to maize," Dr Jordan said.

"My colleagues and I plan to use sophisticated computer modelling to exploit new marker technologies, which allow rapid development of new varieties.

"The project will generate benefits beyond the initial target countries and Australia.

"Our research template provides a basis for other crop improvement programs in impoverished countries such as Ethiopia.

"In addition, there will intangible benefits to the establishment of enduring relationships between the collaborating countries that will extend beyond the project."

On the ground in Ethiopia what is needed is a drought-tolerant sorghum variety that will also produce a grain with the characteristics to make quality injera - the flat bread the population uses as both cutlery and carbohydrate three times at day.

In this third-world country, the stalk of the sorghum plant is also utilised as fuel for fires and a base building material so it too needs to retain or improve the traits of existing breeds.

Dr Jordan is the first to acknowledge the targets of each country vary sharply but their common ground is producing a crop capable of surviving and producing high-quality yields with minimal water.

The project also boasts a training component, where Australian researchers will share knowledge and development strategies with their African peers with scientists from both centres making trips between the two continents.

These residential exchanges are considered mutually beneficial and critical for the development of research capabilities in places like Ethiopia.

At a scientific level Dr Jordan, the trait-discovery component of this search for drought-tolerant sorghum had the potential to deliver global benefits for drought adaptation of other crops.

"While our focused delivery is into the target crop, sorghum's improvement programs, any findings will have far wider applicability," he said.

At Hermitage there are six scientists involved in the international project, which is a joint operation between the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), an institute of The University of Queensland, which was formed through and alliance between UQ and the Queensland Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Dr Jordan said QAAFI's long-term goal was to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of tropical and sub-tropical food, fibre and agribusiness sectors through high-impact science.

The institute's objective is to be a world leading research institute in plant science, animal science, and nutrition and food sciences, delivering outcomes in discovery, learning, and engagement.

DAFF's contribution comes from a jointly run a large pre-breeding program for sorghum in Australia with QAAFI.

Funded by the Queensland Government and Australian farmers through the Grains Research and Development Corporation, this program, which is predominately based at Hermitage, is at the leading edge of sorghum-breeding technologies.

"Not only are advances in breeding, physiology and bioinformatics increasing, our basic understanding of the sorghum plant, growers are also seeing tangible benefits in their sorghum paddocks," Dr Jordan said.

"Almost every grain of sorghum produced in Australia now is carrying genes from germ plasm released by the program."

But the cornerstone of the latest program, with its crucial funding from the Gates Foundation, was to breed drought-resistant sorghum, which would grow quickly and could be utilised both here at a commercial level, while feeding families in Africa.

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