Growing gains in black rice and hemp

Published 7 September 2022
Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar with rice crop

Gumboots squelching as he moves further into the black rice field, Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar seems to be shrinking. So sodden is the ground beneath the crop, every step sinks him deeper. Not that he minds. His attention is on the freshly picked rice in his hand. The black grains shine.

Of all the calories consumed by the world’s population every year, more than half come from rice, wheat and maize. However, as much as quantity remains a crucial factor in feeding the world, there is growing demand for improved nutritional value, greater diversity and environmental sustainability of crops. 

Black rice and hemp are two examples and at Southern Cross Plant Science, Associate Professor Kretzschmar is investigating both. 

I'm an associate professor for plant breeding and genetics here at Southern Cross Plant Science.

We're a regional university and both black rice and and hemp are regional crops grown in this region and I think we it's part of our mandate to support the regional industries.

Here we're focusing on niche crops rather than broad commodity crops.

I think we have a competitive advantage in this space, especially in hemp.

At the moment running two projects we have a medicinal cannabis project under a CRC-P with Kaan Group group industry partner out of Victoria and we have a hemp project looking at hemp seed quality that's with the regional industry partner out in Nimbin, Andrew Kavasilas and that's through an ARC Linkage project.

Hemp is an incredibly versatile crop. I'd almost call it a Swiss army knife of crops.

It's a very ancient one too. It's been one of the most early domesticated crops and it's been traditionally used for fibre, food and medicine.

Hemp seed is really rich in omega fatty acids, very balanced too similar quality to fish oil. The protein is rich in essential amino acids, very good for a balanced diet and there's lots of micronutrients as well in the hemp seed.

Cannabis is very rich in cannabinoids and terpenoids and both have medicinal properties that are being more and more streamlined now in traditional but also in alternative medicine.

The demand for black rice because of its nutritional power is growing and Australia has really realised the value of it.

We're working closely together with about a dozen growers in the region.

Rather than growing brown rice which the local farmers tended to be growing, we're trying to switch them to black rice because there's just much higher market value but also higher nutritional benefit in the black rice.

Well rice is a is a staple for about half the world's population so if you if you're changing rice you're changing the world and with that attitude I wanted to make the world a better place.

“Hemp is a crop of a hundred uses. It is the Swiss army knife of products, yet it needs to be improved to maximise its benefits,” he said. “As much as there are already billion-dollar markets for hemp in food and medicine, it is still far from having reached its potential.”

From the black rice field next door to the Lismore campus, to the laboratory and hothouse cultivating hemp and medicinal cannabis, they represent the latest phase in Associate Professor Kretzschmar’s scientific career, one that has grown based on what the world grows. 

The German-born plant geneticist and plant physiologist has studied pineapples in Townsville, petunias in Switzerland, rice in the Philippines and – since joining Southern Cross University in 2018 – passionfruit, coffee, mustard, tea tree and, of course, hemp and rice. 

He is unsurprised by the attention on black rice. It also complements his research objectives.

“After I did my PhD in plant molecular physiology in Switzerland, I wanted to apply my research background to something with a positive impact for people,” said Associate Professor Kretzschmar. “I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where, as a molecular geneticist, the mandate was clear – make better rice for people in developing countries across the world.”

Black rice gets its dark colour from a range of naturally occurring compounds called anthocyanins, which deliver health benefits derived from its high protein, antioxidants and other nutritional factors. With positive ramifications around heart and gut health, diabetes, cholesterol, weight loss and more – and coinciding with shifting trends around work, lifestyle and population – little wonder black rice has become the focus of a global health imperative.

The same applies to hemp, which offers benefits for food and medicine and finds Southern Cross University as a research leader. Associate Professor Kretzschmar said hemp was an ideal crop for Australia.

“Hempseeds are rich in oils of a similar quality to fish oil, except they are vegan and do not have the smell. They also contain high amounts of essential amino acids. Like soy, hemp can be used as protein crop. Like canola, it can be used as an oil crop. In addition, its flowers are rich in nutraceutical and medical compounds.

“Hemp also produces high-quality fibres that can serve as fabric for clothing, or it can be used in composite materials to replace single-use plastic. As Hempcrete, it can replace concrete or other non-renewables in certain building applications. Developed correctly, hemp can help us reach zero waste goals and implement circular and sustainable economies.”

Southern Cross Plant Science is currently involved in two large cannabis projects, one a CRC-P investigating the medicinal cannabis industry from precision farming to pharmaceuticals; the second an ARC Linkage around genetic control of the nutritional quality of hempseed. Both speak to the economic and health value of hemp in a future less hindered by stigma and over-regulation. Furthermore, they reflect the priority of the University’s engagement with local and regional partners and stakeholders.

Media contact: Media and content team content@scu.edu.au