A research project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), through Charles Sturt University, has produced highly durable and sustainable food alternatives to rice by simulating international climates in a glasshouse in Wagga Wagga.
The project ‘Farmer’s options for crops under saline conditions in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam’ has seen full lifecycle growth of quinoa and cowpea, foods that can be grown in harsh conditions in Australia and around the world.
By simulating the high salinity and high-temperature conditions of the rice fields in the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam at the Charles Sturt glasshouse in Wagga Wagga, the process used to grow these increasingly popular and highly nutritious foods lends itself to increased food security globally.
Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences and Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Brooke Kaveney, said the project represents multiple benefits for farmers and communities around the world.
“Rice is one of the world’s staple foods, but it is highly water dependant,” Kaveney said.
“The ongoing drought in Australia reiterated the need to find alternative crops for food security globally, and quinoa and cowpea are highly water efficient. Quinoa is also a superfood boasting all nine essential amino acids that our bodies don’t produce on their own.”
With quinoa farming in Australia in its infancy and the dire need to find alternative food sources for the Vietnamese with the high salinity of the Mekong River Delta threatening their food security, the Mekong River Delta was a good testbed to trial this research.
“The Mekong River Delta is the food bowl of Vietnam and its conditions are very similar to parts of Australia,” Kaveney said.
Kaveney went to great lengths to continue the project among the COVID-19 lockdowns, having to recreate the conditions of the Mekong River Delta at the glasshouse in Wagga Wagga as it was no longer an option to travel to the Vietnam rice fields.
“Being based in the Riverina, this glasshouse is known for producing wheat and canola,” she said.
“Before lockdowns, I travelled to Northern NSW to bring back soil with the same properties as that in the Mekong Delta Valley and crossed my fingers I would be able to cultivate it from a simulated environment in our glasshouse.”
Setting the temperature to 30 degrees, Kaveney monitored the soil moisture everyday with Chameleon Soil Moisture sensors – a more cost-effective and easy-to-use method for farmers, to prevent overwatering of plants.
“We harvested the cowpea last week and will do the same with the quinoa over the next few weeks,” she said.
“The looks we’ve started to get from people when they see quinoa and cowpea growing in the glasshouse are also quite amusing.”
With only a small number of farmers in Australia having had experience in growing quinoa and cowpea, Kaveney noted that this was an area of opportunity for Australian farmers to expand their income streams.
“These foods are a great cropping alternative for farmers in Australia that don’t have great water quality in terms of salt concentration or have little available to irrigate,” she said.
“It is very exciting to be researching and trialling this at our very own glasshouse here in Wagga Wagga.”
The Charles Sturt Research team, along with researchers at Can Tho University, plan to implement this process in Vietnam in the future, then implement management techniques such as mulching.