2020 CRC Research Showcase round-up

The CRC’s inaugural Research Showcase, hosted online in the first week of December, was well attended by industry and research partners as well as interested external parties.

CRC Research & Commercialisation Director Prof. Cordelia Selomulya hosted and MCed the event. Prof. Selomulya gave an introductory overview of the CRC’s research objectives and themes before handing over to the Program’s three directors: Queensland University of Technology’s Prof. Doug Baker, head of RP1; Western Sydney University’s Prof. David Tissue, RP2 head and Director of WSU’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE); and Prof. Jeremy Nicholson, RP3 lead and head of Murdoch University’s world-renowned team at the Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC).

The three Research Program leads gave overviews of projects commenced under their respective research streams – agrifood clusters and smart trade (RP1); systems and solutions for high-tech protected cropping (RP2); and value-adding and precision nutrition (RP3) – before introducing project and industry leads to talk about specific projects under each research program.

Research Program 1

Under Program 1, invited guests heard from QUT’s Prof. Marcus Foth, project lead on the ‘Blockchain for smart trade’ project, and Adj. Prof. Warwick Powell, Chairman of industry partner BeefLedger about progress on the first stage of that project; and from Charles Darwin University’s Dr Penny Wurm, who is working with multiple industry and government partners on the ‘Commercialising native rice’ project, based in Northern Australia.

Research Program 2

Under Program 2, the Showcase heard from UNSW Sydney Assoc. Prof. Wen Hu, who’s helming the ‘IoT for indoor cropping’ project with industry partner WBS Technology to develop embedded network sensor system to help automate indoor cropping facilities; and from University of New England’s Dr Gal Winter about her work with Costa Group studying the microbial ecology of the root zone (the rhizobiome) of hydroponically grown tomato plants, as a precursor to developing optimised application regimes for probiotic supplementation of Costa’s tomato plants.

Research Program 3

Under Research Program 3, Prof. Jeremy Nicholson spoke about a major foundation project involving ANPC scientists, WA DPIRD and premium food producers and manufacturers from across the state; and Fraser Taylor, director of the FoodSwitch initiative at The George Institute for Global Health talked about the ‘FoodSwitch Connect’ project, which is gathering data on healthy food and beverage options offered by caterers and other food-service providers in the Western Sydney region.

The Showcase concluded with attendee questions.

Excerpts from the online Showcase will be available via the CRC website in the new year.

Research project overview

Planning for food-industry hubs and smart trade

A slate of foundational projects commenced under Research Program 1 over 2020.

In the ‘Western Sydney agrifood mapping and analytics’ project, UNSW Sydney researchers are working with Liverpool City Council and local stakeholders to chart existing land use and potential agrifood-industry growth in the region surrounding the planned Western Sydney International Airport.

Further north, in regional New South Wales, the ‘Coffs food ecosystem’ project is mapping key players in the region’s food and agricultural ecosystem, laying the groundwork for a specialised food-industry cluster in the fertile Coffs Harbour region.

The Blockchain for smart trade project is looking at streamlining the path to export for premium Australian products. It’s the first stage of a multi-stage collaboration between researchers at QUT and SME Beefledger that is aimed at developing a smart (blockchain-enabled) trade hub for Australia’s high-value food-product exports.

And the four-year ‘Commercialising native rice’ project is a major Northern Australian initiative exploring the sustainable commercial-scale production of native rice involving five CRC partners: Charles Darwin University (CDU), QUT, Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours, Olive Vale Pastoral and the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources (NT DPIR). 

A slate of high-tech solutions for future cropping 

Over 2020, we started several projects developing tech-enabled solutions for future cropping:

‘Iot for indoor cropping’, a greenhouse instrumentation project with network innovator WBS, involves UNSW sensor and Internet of Things (IoT) experts and WSU crop scientists, who are developing an automated networked-sensor-based solution for monitoring and tending commercial-scale greenhouse crops.

In the ‘Blueberry nutritional optimisation’ project, involving Western Sydney University protected-cropping specialists, NSW Department of Primary Industries and industry partner LLEAF, exploring the use of novel spectral-selective light luminescent films to determine which of these produce the greatest nutritional potency in polytunnel-grown blueberries. 

In the ‘Tomato rhizobiome’ project, microbiologists at University of New England are working with industry partner Costa Group to optimise its probiotics application regime for hydroponically grown tomatoes;

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, specialists in robotics and automation at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are engaged in the first phase of designing a low-cost, scaleable solution for industry partner Greenbio Group, the first phase in the ‘Development of a Modular Vertical Growing System, aka ‘Modular vertical project.

And in the recently commenced ‘Acoustic pollination’ project, industry partner Perfection Fresh and a research team comprising WSU plant scientists and UNSW acoustic engineers is looking to explore the potential in a novel method of automating pollination for commercial protected-cropping-facilities: acoustically-generated vibrations.

Value-adding and precision nutrition 

Four projects were approved under the CRC’s Research Program 3 in 2020.

The ‘FoodSwitch Connect’ project, a collaboration between Liverpool City Council and The George Institute for Global Health, is developing an extension of The George Institute’s globally successful FoodSwitch app and database to include healthy options offered by caterers and other food-service providers in the Western Sydney region.

At the end of 2020, the CRC formed two major projects involving nutritional and ‘omics’ experts at Murdoch University and the world-leading Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC).

The first, the ‘Artichokes’ project, aims to prove the superior nutritional, taste and sensory attributes of Western Australian grower Mt Lindesay’s premium artichoke varieties and value-added products.

The second, a four-year foundation project, is establishing a first-of-its-kind ‘food metabolic library’ for premium Western Australian goods in tandem with the WA Government’s Department of Primary Industry, Resources and Development (WA DPIRD) and several producer-partners, including growers of truffles, artichokes, mushrooms and apples. 

And in mid-December 2020, Future Food Systems CRC signed off on a four-year project with new industry participant EcoMag and experts in food formulation and advanced spray-drying technology at UNSW Sydney. The ‘Spray-drying for nutriceuticals’ project research team, helmed by Prof. Selomulya, is looking to develop a new, faster and more cost-effective way to create high-purity magnesium-based particles out of minerals sourced from the waste bitterns of solar salt operations in Karratha, Western Australia. It’s an ambitious project that could underpin the development of a sustainable waste-to-high-value health-product-ingredient industry for Australia.

Future projects: Developing smart, sustainable food systems for a post-pandemic world

While 2020 has been a challenging year, COVID-19 highlighted the importance of the Future Food Systems CRC’s value-chain transformation agenda. The pandemic made it clear that greater security and efficiency is needed in food supply chains, creating opportunities in logistics, urban agriculture (vertical farms), blockchain platforms and direct-to-consumer marketing models. It put better nutrition, provenance and safety at a premium. 

The pandemic intensified the already-bullish global ‘health and wellness’ trend, expanding opportunities for Future Food Systems CRC partners in segments including health supplements and nutraceuticals, ‘alternative proteins’ and trusted fresh as well as functional, fortified and ‘free-from’ foods.

It has also accelerated the trend towards ‘targeted eating’ – foods to meet specific dietary needs; and ‘energy-smart’ (sustainably produced) foods.

At the same time, our overarching mission, objectives and research roadmap were aligned closely with Commonwealth and state government pandemic response initiatives that recognised the potential of regional centres as food-manufacturing clusters and the need for more supportive strategy and infrastructure staging.

This creates exciting opportunities for the Future Food Systems CRC moving into 2021.