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ARC funds ‘climate smart’ rice breeding program to reduce crop’s environmental footprint

Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak in experimental rice crop


10 July 2024

Picturesque fields of ponded rice paddies belie a severe environmental impact: the world’s most eaten staple food is a water-guzzling, high methane-emitting crop. Southern Cross University is tackling this challenge by breeding rice for Australia that grows without standing in flood-irrigation water.

The University’s initiative, led by Dr Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak, a Research Fellow in Rice Breeding and Genetics, has the backing of the Australian Research Council.

The ARC has awarded an Industry Fellowship to Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak for ‘Speed breeding with a twist for water-saving low-carbon rice’ worth $417,391 over three years (Project ID: IE240100183).

The Industry Fellowship project will allow Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak to continue exploring sustainable ‘dryland’ rice production in the NSW Northern Rivers where the region’s abundant rainfall is the crop’s water source rather than irrigation.

The Natural Rice Company, based at Kyogle, is the project’s industry partner.

TOBIAS KRETZSCHMAR: Black rice is much more nutraceutical than white rice. So, it contains anthocyanins. They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties and it's becoming a bit bit of a boom crop. So, for the farmers, the advantages are that the returns of investment are way higher. For the consumers, the benefits are that it's a healthier rice, it has a lower glycaemic index, so it doesn't raise the blood sugar levels that much and it's becoming part of a of a healthy lifestyle. This is a trial plot we have for our rice breeding program. It's part of an ARC Linkage Project that we have with the Natural Rice Co. The aim of the project is to adapt imported black rice to local environments. The way we're achieving this is we're taking locally adapted rice that's been grown here, that's mostly brown rice, and crossing it with black rice in order to achieve something that is locally adapted. 
SZABOLCS LEHOCZKI-KRSJAK: We started a breeding project two years ago, and with the first crosses. Since then, we continue to doing new and new crosses in order to find the most adapted well-grown high yielding varieties suitable for this Northern Rivers region. Well, black rice has a little bit of special taste because it's not like polished white rice, it has a paricarpon which which gives it a little bit of a crunchy feeling when you when you start to chew it and also because of the paricarp and the high anthocyanin and other nutrient content in the paricarp, it has a bit of a nutty taste. 
STEVE ROGERS: This climate that we have is very unique for rice growing. It's probably the most unique dryland rice producing area in Australia. It's been great to work at Southern Cross University as a partner within this research project. Traditional paddy rice is not only a heavy water user, you know, it can be up to 16 megs to the hectare, you know, it's quite a massive water user but it's also a very high contributor to greenhouse gases. It's responsible for up to 12 to 16% of the world's greenhouse gases in the form of methane. When you grow rice like this, you eliminate that methane. It's where food needs to be going into the future.

“My aim is to examine drought and cold tolerance in rice to identify which part of their genome carries stress tolerance genes. This will help us to develop new climate smart varieties of rice.”

Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak with experimental rice crop

“The ARC Early Career Industry Fellowship will support us in developing a ‘speed-breeding’ method by extending the rice growing period to investigate stress tolerance and to grow and select two crops per year at the nursery,” said Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak.

“My aim is to examine drought and cold tolerance in rice and, once I’ve found genotypes with the necessary stress tolerance level, I’ll dissect their genetic background to identify which part of their genome carries stress tolerance genes. This will help us to develop new climate smart varieties of rice.”

These new ‘climate smart’ dryland varieties will provide significant benefit by transforming rice production to save water and lower the carbon footprint while maintaining productivity and profitability.

Methane, the second-most important greenhouse gas contributor, is produced by bacteria that live in the soil of the flooded paddies under oxygen-restricted conditions.

“These bacteria are way less active in methane emission under dryland production,” said Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak.

Szab tending to experimental rice crop
Dr Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak with his experimental rice crop.

Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak’s earlier research, conducted in conjunction with Southern Cross University’s Professor Tobias Kretzschmar, has seen the development of new ‘climate smart’ lines of rice that not only help save irrigation water, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by the Australian rice industry.

These ‘climate smart’ rices include dryland-grown black rices that are high in natural fibre and antioxidant anthocyanins, making them a healthy – and tasty – dietary choice.

“The ARC Fellowship, combined with the Northern Rivers’ unique climatic conditions and its rice growers’ community, together with Southern Cross University’s in-house rice experts and a strong ongoing partnership with our industry partner, The Natural Rice Company, provide the perfect scenario for me to continue my research into climate smart rice,” said Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak.

Tobias Szab and Steve Rogers in experimental rice crop
Breeding climate smart rice: Professor Tobias Kretzschmar (left) with Dr Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak and Steve Rogers of The Natural Rice Company.

Steve Rogers, General Manager of The Natural Rice Company, said he was excited to continue working with Southern Cross University.

“Producing dryland rice eliminates methane and irrigation. This needs to be the goal of food production into the future.

“This climate we have here in the Northern Rivers is very unique for rice-growing. It’s probably the most unique dryland rice producing area in Australia.

“It is great to be partner with Southern Cross University for Szab’s ARC Industry Fellowship,” Mr Rogers said.

Dr Lehoczki-Krsjak said the project will deliver direct environmental benefits by:

  • supporting the development of new ‘climate smart’ rice varieties which require less water to produce high yield, thereby safeguarding natural waters used for irrigation
  • facilitating dryland rice productivity and profitability while reducing greenhouse gas emission in the rice industry
  • enhancing the share of ecofriendly dryland rice in Australian rice production

The ARC Industry Fellowships Programs help build innovation in the industry, community organisation, not-for-profit, and other government and publicly funded research sectors, and to facilitate the adoption, translation and commercialisation of Australian research over time.

ARC Industry Fellowship

Project summary

Rice has one of the highest environmental footprints among crops world-wide, because of the water use and methane emission during production. This project aims to combine drought and cold tolerance traits of rice, necessary for ecofriendly dryland production, through a field-based speed breeding approach. It will allow to rapidly advance and select drought and cold tolerant rice genotypes and will generate new knowledge on the genetic drivers of combined stress tolerance. Expected outcomes includes tolerant germplasms for further breeding and variety development purposes. This will lead to ‘climate smart’ dryland varieties and will provide significant benefit by transforming rice production to save water and lower the carbon footprint.

Chief Investigator: Dr Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak of Southern Cross University

$417,391 over 3 years

Industry Partner: The Natural Rice Company

Project ID: IE240100183

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]