Australia is helping to lead glasshouse technology that will help maintain the world's food security and meet the challenges of climate variability.
The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Richmond is at the cutting edge of ag research and is already assisting one of the most populated nations of the world to meet its food requirements threatened by soil degradation.
From hydroponics to aeroponics, the Hawkesbury campus of Western Sydney University (WSU) is trialling everything from new glass smartfilms to 'training' native stingless bees to pollinate glasshouse crops.
While glasshouse production in Europe is largely about increasing heat into the glasshouse space, in Australia the challenge is to moderate the heat with special film surfaces on the glass to create the best growing environments.
Already it's believed up to 40 per cent of Australian horticulture is grown in protected spaces.
Helping to steer the program and create partnerships is Dr Nisha Rakhesh, the Institute's senior advisor in Research Strategy and Partnerships. Originally from India, she migrated to Australia and completed her PHD in Agricultural Sciences at the University of New England. She was previously Senior Project Officer (Sugarcane Nutrient Management and Sustainable Agriculture) with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland Government.
She is helping forge the partnerships that will see WSU-funded technology taken to a more commercial space - including the exciting development of a new Agri-Tech Hub at Richmond, that will be a commercial enterprise, a joint WSU project with the Federal Government. The university has asked the Government to put in $16.7 million towards the project.
The bottom line of the glasshouse production is very exciting: a low carbon footprint, increasing crop production five times with a tenth of the inputs.
It's all being perfected in the existing $7m research glasshouse at Richmond, a joint venture between WSU and Hort Innovation Australia. The rooms control temperature, humidity, CO2 and light and were designed by Wageningen University Research in The Netherlands, and is the largest facility of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.
"There are real challenges for food security moving forward with a tripling of the world population by 2050," Dr Rakhesh said. "We have to almost triple production without exploiting natural resources including water security.
"Climate variability in farming will continue to upset crops each year and there will be increasing demand for fresh produce at the same time.
"We can really reduce water usage inside, up to 95 per cent, and what we do use, we can mostly recycle. We also lose less water through evaporation. There is also the bonus that such indoor systems have a low carbon footprint. We will also use less pesticide and less fungicide.
"Hydroponics system provide plants exactly what they need and when they need it. It is a technology of growing plants without soil. Instead, crops are planted in inert growing media. The nutrient-rich solutions and water is delivered directly to the plants root system through automated nutrient delivery systems. It is therefore a water efficient and nutrient efficient method, delivering what is needed directly to the plant's roots."
High-value tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and leafy greens are already grown widely in Australia in glasshouses. The technology is now moving more into berry production for strawberries and raspberries. Also there is large amount of plants for nurseries, flowers and herbs grown in glasshouses. Hydroponic grown fodder for livestock is also being looked at, and is used already by Gulf States, where irrigation water is not easily available (including Jordan).
The new glasshouse technology will also be focused on fruit trees and growing medicinal cannabis.
"The technology is advancing at the blink of an eye," Dr Rakhesh said.
The technology is advancing at the blink of an eye.- Dr Nisha Rakhesh, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University
Aeroponics is the new field in glasshouse production with many commercial businesses interested in pursuing this in Australia.
Pioneered by NASA as a way of providing food for astronauts in space, it looks like having a much bigger footprint on earth.
Basically, plants get their water through nutrient rich mist and grow vertically on surfaces such as rockwool.
The University is collaborating with the US-based AeroFarms to improve aeroponic technology. The Institute is also working with Sky Greens in Singapore, looking at more vertical farming innovations.
"Greenhouse farming is one of the fastest growing sectors in Australian farming," Dr Rakhesh said. "But in 2017 we ranked just 20th in the world for protected growing production, so there is a lot of room for significant growth."
Smartfilms on greenhouse surfaces is another of the technologies the Institute is researching, with the aim in Australia to regulate temperatures that can soar as high as 40 degrees in some areas, including in the Hawkesbury. Perfect pollination is also required, and native stingless bees are used to help produce fruit that is sweet and well-shaped for the market. "We are training stingless bees to effectively complete this type of pollination."
The existing Richmond glasshouse will soon be complemented by a new six hectare Agri-Tech Hub. It will be supported by "engaged research clusters in food technology, land-use management and consumer demand", WSU said.
Professor Andy Marks, Pro Vice-Chancellor, WSU, said the Hub would deliver knowledge jobs to the region. "All three layers of government have promised to create 200,000 future focused jobs for outer Western Sydney, and we're confident this plan for the Hawkesbury will make a very significant contribution to that objective. Just 30 minutes from the new airport at Badgerys Creek, this facility will support the rapid export of high-quality, high yield produce, straight from Western Sydney and into South-East Asia. It is a chance for Hawkesbury residents to directly benefit from major Government infrastructure investments being made in our region, and secure knowledge jobs in a rapidly expanding sector, close to home," Prof Marks said.
Meantime, Western Sydney University is helping India confront food pressures with its glasshouse technology through a unique memorandum of understanding with the Indian Government.
The collaboration is already helping to design glasshouse production of vanilla beans and saffron, some of the spice staples of Indian cooking, as the country tackles soil degradation.
The MOU is also seeing a fruitful link between Indian ag and Western Sydney University students for both study and research.
WSU has formed links with a network of ag-based universities throughout India - where ag is seperate from other education streams. The Indian Agricultural Institutions are considered as the world's largest agricultural network of institutions.
"Agriculture is an important part of the Indian economy and the demand for skilled professionals in the field is growing day by day," Dr Nisha Rakhesh, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment senior advisor, said.
"Additionally, in response to COVID-19, Western and Indian partners also developed hybrid alternatives for offshore delivery in 2020 and beyond.
"A number of these partners are now seeking to send undergraduate students to the Western Sydney University to participate in short, non-accredited programs.
"Offshore and onshore hybrid delivery of the programs will be offered once approvals are secured and travel restrictions are lifted."
Key objectives of this collaboration was to forge "long-term international partnerships that support research collaborations, offshore delivery, staff and student exchange, and student mobility; develop international partnerships that leverage the University's research strengths, intensify research impact, profile and contribute to improved global rankings; build pathways to WSU by developing close relationships with educational partners; develop new course offerings in response to partners demand, that can be delivered flexibly on and offshore.
State Agricultural Universities (SAUs) are the predominant class of agricultural universities in India.
Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is the main regulatory authority of agricultural education in India.
Prof Barney Glover, Vice Chancellor, WSU, signed MOUs with ICAR and 20 SAUs in November 2018, of which 10 are listed as top 10 agricultural colleges and universities in India.
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