ANU research for C4 Rice Project not likely to help Riverina rice growers

Professor Robert Furbank. Picture: ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis
Professor Robert Furbank. Picture: ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis

Research that could transform global rice production has been welcomed by rice growers in the Riverina, yet some say they are already a step ahead.

The Australian National University (ANU) is part of an international collaboration between seven research partners, the C4 Rice Project, funded by a grant to the University of Oxford from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worth $22 million.

Led by Professor Robert Furbank, the research will contribute to the project by assembling the genes needed in rice to make it more efficient at using sunlight to produce food.

The ANU team will receive $4 million for their work, with the project recently boosted by five more years of funding.

"Other plants like maize and sorghum - known as C4 crops - have a 'turbocharged' photosynthesis process," Professor Furbank said.

"We're trying to recreate this process in rice - taking it from a C3 crop to a C4."

Professor Furbank likened the research to "transforming the photosynthesis process from a VW Beetle into a Porsche".

The research would theoretically see up to a 50 per cent increase in yields, but Chairman of Agrifutures Research and Development Advisory Panel, Drew Braithwaite, said the Riverina was already hitting that mark.

"Rice growers here in general have got the highest yields already and actually use 50 per cent less water than anyone else, leading the world," he said.

"My understanding is that they are trying to drive water productivity which would be better for broader rice growing areas, but I am not sure how it will help us here given we are already reaching that productivity."

However, Mr Braithwaite said any and all research is welcomed for the rice growing industry.

"We are always trying to find ways to maintain the high yield particularly in times of drought, but also while maintaining good quality," he said.

"For every tonne of rice produced in Australia, three dollars goes towards research and development to fund breeding programs and other ways for the industry to advance."