By Brad Collis
There is a new word entering common usage among people who are mapping
the direction of Australian agriculture – in particular the grains
industry: “Pharmas.” It is a new word for those who most Australians
take for granted as food producers – farmers – and the changing
role of their crops that have hitherto been accepted for thousands of
years as unremarkable, staple foods.
But this one word encapsulates a potential revolution; new industries,
new foods … and even, in a sense, new people, because of the fast-approaching
capacity to match the genetic needs of the human body with the power and
new manageability of plant chemistry.
In the not too distant future, a field of wheat or pulses will no longer
be a ‘crop’, but a vast assembly of biological factories producing
the molecular ingredients for foods, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and
even natural chemical compounds for processing into bio-fuels, plastics
and other products.
pharmas will grow specialist ‘crops’, bred specifically to
meet the specifications of an intended end-use,” says the chief
executive of food technology company BRI Australia Ltd, Dr Graham McMaster
(left). He was one of the instigators of the new CRC for Innovative
Grain Food Products brokered by the Puragrain company, a joint venture
between Southern Cross University and BRI Australia Ltd.
It is the first CRC to be established as an overt commercial venture,
with a mix of corporate, government and university partners, and its proclaimed
objective is to create new grains-based industries.
It arose from the growing awareness among researchers that the time has
come when science not only knows the molecular composition of grains –
the proteins, minerals, sugars, fibres and numerous other nutritional
compounds – but also the genes responsible for these components.
It means that different varieties of a plant such as wheat can be bred
with an emphasis on particular traits; to produce, for example, compounds
known to have therapeutic benefits for human conditions such as cardiovascular
disease or diabetes. A bottle of pills could conceivably be replaced by
a grain-based food product.
the words of the CRC’s chief executive, Dr Jan Mahoney (left):
“Designer foods to complement people’s individual genetic
make-up.” Dr Mahoney was formerly the GRDC’s executive manager
for Product Service and Delivery. In the past, such a concept might have
remained an idealistic fantasy, except for the emerging reality that Australia’s
grain exports are going to become increasingly harder to sell against
competition from emerging high-capacity countries like India, China and
some of the former Soviet republics.
“So, by moving to new grain-based food and health products, we
can keep ahead of changing trading conditions by going down a whole new
road … by becoming the leader in completely new markets,”
says Dr McMaster.
He predicts a new $40 billion grains-based food and pharmaceuticals industry
within a decade.
Dr McMaster says the CRC’s focus will be on developing high-value
functional foods and increased quality grain by exploring the genetic
determinants of grain quality and characteristics, and potential applications.
He says the CRC’s genetics program, based at Southern Cross University,
will utilise modern high-throughput DNA analysis as a tool to search for
targeted genes in existing genetic resources and the products of induced
mutation. A parallel program based at BRI Australia will develop innovative
food products, processing technologies, ingredients and novel applications
for existing and new grains. As well as the two lead agencies, Southern
Cross University and BRI Australia, the CRC includes partnerships with
food manufacturers such as Weston Foods and industry bodies including
This is a new story that is still unfolding, but Dr McMaster believes
the Australian grains industry has reached the start of a totally new
era because of the opportunities being opened up by advances in biochemistry
and genetics. Significantly, he also sees this future as providing a much
broader scope for growers to benefit from value-adding.
“In the past, most growers have missed out on value-adding opportunities
because they’ve tended to occur further along the value chain, but
the development of new grain-based products will introduce more value-adding
opportunities at the production stage through ‘pharmas’ growing
specialised crop varieties for different end-uses.”
The GRDC’s former managing director, Professor John Lovett, who
was the other prime mover behind the CRC’s creation, says the grains
industry is starting to grasp the concept of biotransformation –
the plant being a factory for not just food but for products like new
pharmaceuticals, plastics and fuels, such as biodiesel.
“And importantly this combines ‘science push’ with
‘market pull’, which is why the momentum is building,”
Dr Mahoney agrees, saying grains research has come to the point where
it can begin to treat plants as a source of ingredients. From here on
we will be increasingly looking at crops from the perspective of their
functionality rather than their traditional purposes like bread or beer.
“And if you look at what we already know we can do with the biological
components of grains and pulses in traditional and relatively immediate
contexts, just imagine the potential associated with nanotechnology*.
We haven’t even begun to realise the scope of what lies ahead.
“Apart from treating the plant differently, there will also be
new processing technologies to go with the new approaches to breeding,
growing and valuing a crop for its biological components. If you think
about it, modern processing – milling – is just a larger,
faster, mechanical version of rubbing two stones together. That’s
the measure of how little has changed until now, and why the era we’re
now entering is so momentous.
“In the past we’ve tried to improve the industry’s
competitive position by improving on known products – by making
the crop fit the requirements of known products.
“We’ve done well by improving noodle and pasta-making wheat
varieties that are now in high demand around the world. But it’s
never long before competitors catch up. So what we’re saying now
is that instead of constantly trying to make our crops better fit the
known products … Australia is setting out to create a whole lot
of new products.”
* NANOTECHNOLOGY is regarded as the new industrial revolution
– processing and manufacturing at a molecular level; re-arranging
atoms instead of comparatively crude processes such as casting, grinding