Have you got a favorite plant breeder or maybe not even sure what plant breeding is about? This episode is for you either way! We talk with Dr. Lee Hickey who has a plant breeding lab at Australia’s University of Queensland about some of the cool science that helps advance the seeds farmers plant and the foods on out plates.
Click here for a detailed transcript of Grounded by the Farm podcast episode 207.
I met Lee in the friendly confines of the vast wheat fields just outside Obregón where Norman Borlaug started his Noble Peace Prize winning work to enable developing countries to produce more food for themselves. We were at the CIMMYT (an international plant breeding effort for corn and wheat) with plant breeders from around the world to trade the latest in research tips and to celebrate what would have been Bourlaug’s 100th birthday.
Lee’s story starts strangely – in the city – in Australia called, Brisbane – a city on the East Coast of Australia just a short ways away from the Great Barrier Reef. Every state in Australia has an interest in agriculture, but in Queensland, where Lee now resides and does his research, it’s a tropical to sub-tropical environment. In contrast, the plants that grow in Queensland, are much different than what grows in the Southern states of Australia that have a much cooler climate. While wheat and barley are grown there – mostly because of their drought-hearty properties, a lot of the work that Lee is focusing on is to foster on the speed at which the plants grow and evolve.
What is plant breeding?
Lee was able to put the concept of what he does very simply. He points out that farmers many thousands of years ago started selecting the seeds from plants that perform best, they would balance the harvest with what they would grow the next season.
What has followed, in just the last 100 years or so, is the targeted crossing of species, that provides traits that we “want” versus what is given to humans naturally by growing plants. While these traits can include, flavor, longevity, being seedless, growing faster and use quality it’s really only the tip of a much larger iceberg that has generated the industry of plant research.
Still not understanding where we’re going and what we’re talking about here? Well, it’s this simple: a lot of the crops that we now know worldwide, all come originally from the same plant. Broccoli? Cauliflower? Brussel Sprouts? Kale? All of them were because someone liked a specific part of the plant and wanted more of it! Over centuries, maybe millenia, the parts of the part that one person wanted kept getting chosen for the best and that meant the other parts were getting smaller in comparison! Pretty cool, huh? Lee discusses it in this video from TEDx.
Building In-Plant Resistance
Another reason that people research plants, is to help them stave off disease. As we all know from our experience of the last year, rogue elements can wreak havoc on anything and plants are no exception. Utilizing the targeted selection and crossing of species allows researchers to find new ways to prevent plants from succumbing to disease to live longer and thrive, so that the communities they grow in can also. While that is a huge challenge, it is one that began ages ago and can help us to change the tide if a variety of ways, including directing plants to evolve to survive in a world that is impacted by global climate change.
Having worked with cotton so long (she has a site called Hundred Percent Cotton), Janice jokes that Australia challenges plants and people with all the things! In general, Lee agrees and says there would BE NO COTTON in Australia without advanced breeding and technology. But thanks to the targeted alteration of plants via the efforts of researchers, it has not only become possible but is one of the many crops harvested there en masse.
Finding The Right Path in Agriculture
As mentioned, Lee grew up in the city, not on a farm, but always had an affinity for his “veggie patch” in the backyard. It became a true passion that led him to learn how to care for his veggies to provide the best and most yield that he would share with his parents and neighbors (especially chokos which were abundant!) and now – here he is – a plant researcher building the future not just for neighbors, but whole communities around the world.
Technology has infused itself into modern-day plant research as well. Drones, ornate illumination implementation and more all provide Lee with the ability to not only collect mounds of research that would have taken a much longer time previously, but it allows him to have fun and then pass on the experience to others quickly, effectively that propels the next round of work. A particular focus for this is a process called “Speed Breeding.” While this too might sound like a bit of the joke mentioned in the front end of this discussion, it is also certainly a real process, with real results and a legacy that continues to provide to communities worldwide.
Cool Technology in Plant Breeding
The lighting that’s used inside of crop and plant research also helps to provide the researchers with faster growth, in that they’re able to foster along faster growing periods with the infusion of lighting that tricks the plants growth system and process. This has taken processes that would originally have taken 12 years down to an amazing only 7 or 8 years to develop.
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What trait do YOU think was “bred-out” of – BANANAS? You’ll have to listen to this episode of The Grounded By The Farm Podcast to find out!
The “targeting” skills are quickly becoming much more advanced and now. In fact, the breakthroughs in this space have been awarded Nobel prizes too…. You can read up on it in the book Code Breaker or watch the documentary Human Nature (the tech works in both plant and medical science). It’s an amazing technology and a true showcase of how far the abilities to read, interact and foster direction in the growing process of plants has come. The ability to ensure that the targeting focus is so precise, also means that time is saved on the back-end checking to ensure that what you’re WANTING actually happened. It is just happening saving you all the time and effort that might have been wasted if not for the very focused ability to target the traits you desire.
Are Plant Researchers just buying drones to RACE ‘EM? NOPE! You’re going to have to listen to this episode of Grounded By The Farm to see how they’re using drone technology/UAVs to determine the future of crops around the world!
When it all comes down to it, we have arrived in the “Big Data” era. Plant Researchers like Lee and his cohorts are on the cutting edge of collection and implementation of creating an incredible future for generations to come. Does what he’s doing excite you? Does getting into “Ag-Geekery” make your heart sing? Be sure to connect with me via the many social media avenues listed here at The Grounded By The Farm Website and tell us all about them! Who knows, perhaps the next interview will be with you!
Ready to interact with Lee Hickey, Plant Researcher? Check him out on Twitter — @DrHikov — now and send your 280 characters worth of love his way!
Now that you’ve got all the information you need about plant breeding and Australian agriculture, it’s time to interact with Grounded By the Farm! Be sure to follow our social media streams across the board! You can find them all and connect right now at GroundedByTheFarm.Com!
If you enjoyed this podcast with plant breeder Lee Hickey? Be sure to check out another podcast — one that is focused on plant breeding every week! Listen to Lee’s episode on PBS International mentioned inside this episode that features Lee as a guest! It’s excellent! Tell ’em that The Grounded By The Farm Podcast sentcha’!