View all news

A novel harvest

man inspecting sugar cane


25 May 2023

Amid growing global demand for crops that provide better nutrition, greater diversity and sustainability, the research of Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar holds promise for the growers of the Northern Rivers.

Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar

A novel harvest

There is something distinctly compelling about watching Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar roll grains, seeds and beans in the palm of his hand. Tiny though the particles may be, he clearly sees something bigger – a vision splendid and possible.

Hempseed, for example. As Tobias guides visitors through the Southern Cross Plant Science laboratory at Lismore – a space providing welcome artificial warmth on a chillingly real Lismore winter’s day – he sifts through some seeds and describes what he sees as … wait for it … a Swiss Army knife.

“Hemp is a plant of a hundred uses. It is the Swiss Army knife of products and an ideal crop for Australia,” he says.

“Hemp seeds are a rich source of essential Omega fatty acids with similar health benefits as fish oil, except they are vegan and come without the ethical concerns associated with animal-sourced products. They contain high amounts of essential amino acids as well. Also, like soy, hemp can be used as a protein crop. Like canola, it can be used as an oil crop. And its flowers are rich in nutraceutical and medical compounds.”

The benefits do not end there.

“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.”

So, strange as the Swiss army knife comparison may first have seemed, Tobias’s explanation makes perfect sense. And with Southern Cross University supporting Australia’s emerging hempseed food industry to develop varieties of high nutritional value best suited to local conditions, that is promising news for the agricultural producers of the Northern Rivers.

Currently, a substantial Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant is driving research led by Tobias and a team of scientists in collaboration with industry partner Kavasil Pty Ltd, a regional hemp research and development and consulting company based at Nimbin in the Northern Rivers. Another example is a Cooperative Research Centres project investigating the medicinal cannabis industry – from precision farming to pharmaceuticals.

Both speak to a softening stance around hemp and cannabis after many decades of stigma, misconception and over-regulation. They also bolster three decades of Southern Cross University research with hemp and cannabis and reflect the priority of engagement with local and regional partners and stakeholders.

Part of the University’s new Harvest to Health research cluster, hemp is not the only niche crop flourishing on the SCU farm and field sites. Black rice is another, with food and health benefits adding new perspective to the world’s largest food staple.

What the world grows

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 today, tomorrow looms large and with it a growing demand for improved nutritional value, greater diversity and environmental sustainability. This challenge represents the latest phase in Tobias Kretzschmar’s scientific career, one that has grown based on what the world itself grows.

A German-born plant geneticist and plant physiologist, Tobias did his undergraduate studies from 1999-2002 at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, before undertaking a scientific internship at Townsville’s James Cook University. He received his Doctorate of Science from the University of Zurich in 2009. In a varied career, he 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, hemp and rice.

The motivation for his research is both scientific and philosophical.

“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,” he says. “So, in 2011 I joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. As a molecular geneticist the mandate was clear – make better rice for people in developing countries across the world.” Moving to the Northern Rivers has not altered the objective. 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 found prominence in a global health imperative.

Coffee is another area of Tobias’s research. AgriFutures Australia – established by the Australian Government in 1990 to help fund research and development in Australian rural industries – has identified and invested in the growth potential of the Australian coffee industry.

One such project is a partnership between Southern Cross University and the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association that is testing the performance of global coffee cultivars under local conditions. The results could play a key role in improving crop suitability, increasing demand and investment, enabling new growing opportunities in regions such as the Northern Rivers – and, of course, pouring a better cup of coffee.

In Australia, crops such as hemp, black rice and coffee may be considered novel, but their potential is hardly a novelty. Those seeds, beans and grains in Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar’s hand represent science as the ultimate growth product and tomorrow as the ultimate beneficiary.