Food science centre to bolster grains opportunities

Charles Sturt University Associate Professor in Food Science and director of the new Australian Research Council Training Centre for Functional Grains, Dr Chris Blanchard (rear), pictured at CSU with grain science PhD students Christina Chin and Kyle Reynolds. Photo Paul Jones.

A new centre for food science research will play a pioneering role in exploring new product and niche market opportunities for grain growers in the southern cropping region and the broader Australian grains industry.

Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Southern Regional Panel chair Keith Pengilley says the $2.15 million Australian Research Council Training Centre for Functional Grains, to be located at Charles Sturt University (CSU) at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, aims to add value to crop production, improve product marketability and boost research capacity within the industry.

“This new centre represents a positive step forward for the grains sector which is dependent on innovative research for the delivery of new technologies and products to promote increased cropping productivity, profitability and sustainability,” Mr Pengilley said.

The GRDC is a non-commercial partner of the Australian Research Council-funded centre which will be a research hub for grains scientists from CSU, the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and CSIRO. Also involved is the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation – a collaborative research alliance between CSU and NSW DPI.

The Functional Grains Centre (FGC) will focus on three commodities – pulses, canola (both GRDC leviable crops) and rice.

“Pulses and canola have become particularly important crops for our grain growers in recent times and opportunities exist to make these crops more lucrative and appealing to growers by researching and developing novel grains-based products,” Mr Pengilley said.

“GRDC is also very supportive of any initiatives that foster increased skills and capacity in the grains research community, so we see this new centre as being a very exciting development.”

The FGC, to be operational mid-year, will be housed within CSU’s recently completed $45 million National Life Sciences Hub which contains state-of-the-art research laboratories, quarantine facilities and associated support services.

Based in the centre will be a team of more than 30 researchers, including 12 academic staff, nine government-funded researchers, six industry staff, three post-doctoral scientists and 10 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students.

CSU Associate Professor in Food Science, Dr Chris Blanchard, is the centre director and he says training the next generation of grains scientists will be a key focus of the centre.

“The students, who will be aligned with the centre’s partner organisations for at least one year, will be very much ‘industry-ready’ once they have completed their studies,” said Dr Blanchard, who is also deputy chair of the GRDC Southern Regional Panel.

“We have entered into a recruiting phase and attractive scholarships are on offer to encourage students to undertake research at the centre.”

Dr Blanchard described the FGC as a major boost to the nation’s grains research sector.

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, we have lost a lot of capacity and infrastructure in the area of research into grain quality as a result of downsizing of publicly-owned breeding programs, so this new centre will go some way to filling that void.”

Dr Blanchard said adding value to primary product was another major focus for the centre.

“The grains sector here in Australia is very much commodity-driven and we have to accept whatever price is on offer. We want to explore what options exist to add value to grains so growers can secure premium markets, particularly in Asia, and command a higher price for what they produce.

“Crops such as pulses are an important part of our farming systems in terms of adding nitrogen to the soil and acting as a disease break for cereal crops, but often prices for pulses are not sufficient so we need to make these crops a more viable option for growers.”

To this end, Dr Blanchard said scientists at the new centre would be looking closely at “food functionality” – particularly the growing demand for foods with specific health benefits or novel food applications.

“The functional food market was worth US$25 billion globally in 2011, yet Australia had only a 1.6 per cent share. So there is significant potential to boost Australia’s economy, and growers’ cropping options and income, by exploiting the functional food market,” Dr Blanchard said.

This will require a ‘whole-of-product’ approach to research in areas such as market intelligence to identify what consumers want, generating fundamental scientific knowledge to understand food systems, as well as monitoring of health-enhancing properties and other functionalities through the production chain so that storage, processing, and consumer acceptance of the end product can all be optimised.

In addition to the GRDC, partners of the FGC include GrainGrowers, MSM Milling, Flavour Makers, Teys Australia, Woods Grains, Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council and the Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation.

ENDS

Caption: Charles Sturt University Associate Professor in Food Science and director of the new Australian Research Council Training Centre for Functional Grains, Dr Chris Blanchard (rear), pictured at CSU with grain science PhD students Christina Chin and Kyle Reynolds. Photo Paul Jones.

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Dr Chris Blanchard, CSU
0438 662992

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Sharon Watt, Porter Novelli
0409 675 100

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