Pharming a new era

Graham McMaster

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.

“Specialist 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.

Jan MahoneyIn 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 the GRDC.

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,” he says.

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 or milling.