High-tech sustainable protection for key Australian crops

Researchers at the University of Queensland are spearheading findings into alternatives to chemical fungicides to protect Australia’s $5 trillion global food and agribusiness sector.

University of Queensland’s Professor Neena Mitter said the team from the newly launched $17.5m Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformational Research Hub for Sustainable Crop Protection was building on the university’s BioClay technology to create a ‘smart’ form of biological crop protection.

“We intend bringing biological-based fungicides to Australian broadacre and horticultural crops, resulting in reduced chemical use, increased crop productivity, and improved sustainability across the supply chain,” she said.

The BioClay methodology involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.

Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

“There is no genetic modification and the clay is completely biodegradable.”

Professor Mitter said that meant the BioClay would not result in chemical residues in food or run-off into waterways.

“Globally, an estimated 40 per cent of food grown is lost to crop pests and pathogens.”

She said the fungal pathogens targeted by the Hub were selected in close consultation with Research and Development Corporations and industry partners.

“We will tackle issues such as fungicide resistance or targets where no effective control measures are currently available.”

The Hub comprises a multidisciplinary team including science, commercial and policy experts.

They will be working with the aim of increasing productivity, market access and enhanced environmental credentials of Australian food.

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