Dr Terry Rose's research could help rice farmers save billions in fertiliser costs.
Dr Terry Rose's research could help rice farmers save billions in fertiliser costs. John Waddell

Rice research may save billions

SOUTHERN Cross University researcher Dr Terry Rose's pioneering research into breeding soil-friendly rice could help struggling farmers in the developing world and save billions in fertiliser costs worldwide.

Dr Rose is part of an international consortium looking to breed rice varieties that retain more phosphorus in the plant's leaf and stem instead of its grain.

Phosphorus is an increasingly scarce non-renewable resource and one of the three main nutrients, alongside nitrogen and potassium, vital to healthy crops.

Because around 70% of the phosphorus in rice ends up in the harvested grain, farmers have to replace it with phosphate fertiliser to maintain a decent crop each year.

Dr Rose's team is studying the possibility of breeding rice which retains around 50% of the valuable nutrient in the stem and leaves, which can then be returned to the soil after harvest.

"We think if you can retain more of it in the straw, which goes back to the paddock, hopefully it will maintain soil fertility for a bit longer," Dr Rose said.

Until recently experts predicted rock phosphate deposits would run out by the end of the century, threatening the long-term viability of current worldwide crop harvests.

Although predictions have since been extended, phosphate fertiliser remains an expensive but vital resource to farmers.

"About $11 billion worth of phosphorus is taken off rice farms in harvested grains around the world very year," Dr Rose said.

"In some countries, farmers don't have the money to maintain soil fertility by applying fertiliser, so as phosphorus is exported from their farms, crop yields decline and their livelihood suffers."

Dr Rose's and his fellow researchers, who include a molecular biologist from the Philippines, a geneticist from Japan, and agronomists from Europe and Africa, have received $750,000 from the International Rice Research Institute for a three-year study of the concept.

If successful, their work will lead to breeding programs that could see a new strain of rice grain made available to farmers around the world.

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