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AU: Hi-tech glasshouse to boost global food security

Launched today by Victorian Minister for Skills and TAFE, the Hon. Gayle Tierney MP, at La Trobe’s Melbourne campus in Bundoora, the glasshouse will be used by researchers and industry partners to rapidly optimize management and breeding of crops, boost early disease detection, and the use of ‘big data’ to improve yield, quality and plant health.

Food security is a critical global issue. In 2022, an estimated 29.6 percent of the global population – 2.4 billion people – were moderately or severely food insecure, meaning they did not have access to adequate food, according to Unicef’s report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2023.

La Trobe received $10 million under the Victorian Government’s Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund (VHESIF), including $3.5 million to refurbish and expand its glasshouses with new growth facilities and controlled environment pods, and $6.5 million for infrastructure for research equipment including an imaging mass spectrometer. La Trobe University contributed $7.75 million and Bioplatforms Australia $2.2 million to the project.

These state-of-the-art technologies will accelerate the identification of plant traits for increased yield and quality and the capacity for discoveries to be translated to the agricultural sector.

Minister Tierney said: “By supporting Victoria’s universities, we can tap into the incredible knowledge and skills of our researchers to build a more innovative and responsive agriculture industry that meets the needs of the next generation of Victorians.”

“We look forward to the new discoveries that La Trobe University’s agriculture researchers will uncover.”

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar AO said the Government investment will enhance La Trobe’s food and agriculture research capability at a time when food insecurity is a burgeoning problem, either due to climate change, population growth, or political unrest.

“This investment by the Victorian Government will support the important work La Trobe’s researchers are doing to improve food security not just in Australia but globally,” Professor Dewar said.

“Our AgriBio facility conducts world-class bioscience research aimed at improving productivity and sustainability, fighting disease, reducing environmental impacts, and supporting agricultural education.”

The glasshouse facility contains compartments equipped with the latest imaging systems mounted on the largest XYZ system in the Asia-Pacific region. Fully digitized, the facility allows scientists anywhere in the world to monitor how a plant is growing in real-time, with zero intervention, using a special hyperspectral camera system mounted on an “XYZ” system that can scan across a variety of angles and heights.

Professor Tony Bacic, Director of the La Trobe Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and Food (LISAF), said protected cropping is crucial to the National Farmer’s Federation reaching its goal of a $100 billion agricultural industry by 2030.

“We will likely come to rely more and more on this highly intense form of horticultural and medicinal agriculture crop production, so we need to know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

“We can monitor the dimensions of each plant, the color of the leaves, fruit, and flowers, its photosynthetic capacity, and its hyperspectral properties, which allow us to monitor the optimal input of nutrients and the early detection of disease.

“The protected cropping industry is the fastest-growing food producing sector in Australia, employing more than 10,000 people with a “farm-gate” value of $1.3 billion.”

The facility will support industry and, ultimately, farmers across a broad range of horticultural and medicinal crops.

For example, the glasshouse will be used to study the optimization of tomato plants through finely titrated nutrient mixes to help deliver better quality and higher-yielding crops.

Using the highly controlled environment enables researchers to maintain consistent inputs of nutrients so their impact can be accurately measured. The new imaging mass spectrometer will also enable researchers to see changes in plant features due to different nutrients, with colorful images of the plant functions providing valuable information about nutritional impacts. Data can also be analyzed with other lab measurements to provide clarity on the complexity of plant growth.


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