Feeding the world

By Jackie Randles

The first three Inspiring Science series’ planned for Ultimo Library in 2017 look at the topic: Feeding the World.

From March to May 2017, six Sydney researchers will present free monthly talks that look at sustainable food production as part next year’s Inspiring Science series of short talks at Ultimo Library. Meet some of Sydney’s up and coming early career researchers, including Young Tall Poppy winners, and others who are already leaders in their fields. Each one-hour talk runs from 6-7 pm on Wednesdays and includes presentations from two researchers followed by questions. These family friendly events presented in partnership with City of Sydney Libraries are suitable for audiences with little scientific knowledge.

Bananageddon, the coffee crisis and chocolate meltdown
Wednesday 8 March

The soil beneath our feet is alive with billions of micro-organisms; microscopic living entities such as bacteria and fungi. While we rarely consider these miniscule entities, their presence in farmers’ fields and the relationships they form with plants have been found to control crop health, yield and, ultimately, the sustainability of our food chain. Join Dr Brett Summerell and Dr Jonathan Plett to learn how fungi and bacteria affect the food we eat.

Dr Brett Summerell
Why do plant diseases pick on our favourite foods? Plant diseases caused by fungi reduce food production by 10-20% globally, contaminate food products with toxins and adversely affect the livelihood of farmers, especially in the developing world. To add insult to injury, some of our favourite foods, such as bananas, coffee and chocolate are now under attack from plant pathogens that keep evolving to attack them. Brett is the Director, Science and Conservation at the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands in Sydney. He will explain how fungi diseases threaten plants and what science is doing to combat them.

Dr. Jonathan Plett
A spoonful of dirt contains billions of these micro-organisms, some of which cause plant disease and death while others nourish the plant and boost plant immunity. Dr. Jonathan Plett explains how scientists and plant breeders work together to develop new crop varieties that are better able to form partnerships with beneficial soil micro-organisms while ignoring or rebuffing disease causing micro-organisms. These plants will grow faster, produce more food and rely less on pesticides and fertilisers thus leading to more sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural practices. Learn how Jonathan’s research uses new advances in our understanding of plant genetics to unravel how some micro-organisms (aka ‘microbes’) cause diseases in plants while other microbes benefit plants by helping them grow and flourish.

Sustainable food production
Wednesday 12 April

With climate change and weather variability set to increase the pressure on all ecosystems, include grazing ruminants, Australian scientists are investigating how we can produce healthy, sustainable diets that are accessible to all. First Dr Eliza Middleton reveals the latest thinking on integrated pest management. Then PhD candidate Kate Wingett explains how we can offset meat waste in the human food chain.

Dr Eliza Middleton
Globally we have heavily relied upon insecticides to manage insect pests not only on our food, but in our gardens and our homes. This has led to an increase in insecticide resistance amongst these pests, which means our insecticides are becoming less and less effective. On top of this, our population is growing at an incredible rate and we need to find a way to manage our pests and feed our people. Dr Eliza Middleton explains how integrated pest management can help ensure food security moving into the future. Eliza is a Postdoctoral Research Associate within the Insect Behaviour and Ecology Lab at University of Sydney. She is an invertebrate zoologist with a special interested in collective behaviour and resilience in social insect systems and grew up on a farm in rural New South Wales where her interest in agriculture began.

Kate Wingett
Our food choices have a big impact on the environment and some foods are more sustainable than others. Being the oldest inhabited continent on earth, Australia has very little ‘arable’ land suited to vegetable production. There are however, vast areas of native pasture, suited for grazing sheep, cattle and kangaroos. With climate change and weather variability set to increase the pressure on all ecosystems, include grazing ruminants, how can Australia produce a healthy, sustainable diet that is accessible to all? Masters of Vet Science research candidate Kate Wingett’s research looks at the loss and wastage of sheep meat and offal from the human food chain and the effect of redirecting these products back onto the Australian dinner plate would have on human health, sheep health and the environment.

Making chicken and fish plentiful
Wednesday 10 May

Chicken and fish provide low cost food for communities around the world, but there are many issues that threaten the availability of these protein sources in the future. Discover how chicken vaccination programs may contribute to better diets and growth for young children in Africa with Veterinarian and PhD student Julia de Bruyn. Then explore the past and future of marine food production with fisheries researcher Dr James Smith who asks whether we will always be able to find and/or farm seafood.

Julia de Bruyn
Chickens are kept in small flocks by many families in rural African communities, where they roam freely during the day and roost in trees or are kept in their owners’ houses overnight. The low cost of chickens and low requirements for labour and other inputs make chickens the most accessible form of livestock for people living in poverty. Foods of animal origin are recognised to be sources of high-quality protein and micronutrients, with the potential to greatly improve the nutrient content of diets in developing countries. Unfortunately, when the risk of losing chickens to disease, predators or thieves is high, chickens and eggs are rarely consumed. Veterinarian and PhD student Julia de Bruyn describes her current work in Tanzania on a research program funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research exploring the potential for chicken vaccination programs to contribute to better diets and growth for young children. Julia is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney where she is currently researching the topic: Healthy chickens, healthy children: sustainable contributions to infant nutrition through the control of Newcastle disease in village poultry. Prior to becoming a PhD researcher, Julia worked as a vet and then as a consultant on a number of international research projects.

Dr James Smith
Our demand for seafood continues to increase, but the ocean’s supply of wild seafood stagnated in the 1990s. Aquaculture now provides more than 40% of global seafood production, and this ‘seafood farming’ is reshaping coastlines and moving ever more into open marine environments. Sea pens, ‘sea ranching’ and artificial habitats are all being used to turn once wild fisheries into more controlled ‘farmed’ systems. UNSW Research Associate Dr James Smith explores the past and future of seafood production and asks whether we will always be able to find or farm seafood. James is a Research Associate in the Fisheries and Marine Environmental Research group at UNSW. His research covers many topics, from artificial reefs and fish stocking, to food webs and fish tracking.

Get involved!
Inspiring Science has been running since 2014 to showcase the work of Sydney-based early career researchers. The series presented in partnership with City of Sydney Libraries is now being expanded to suburban and regional libraries across NSW. We welcome interest from researchers and library program managers who would like to get involved. The objective of these informal library talks is to connect general community members with scientists so that more people can gain a better understanding of what researchers do and how their work is relevant to everyday life. For further information please contact the Manager, Inspiring Australia (NSW) Jackie Randles by email.