Farmer wants a future: meet an ANU student who wants to grow enough food for the world

Helen Osbourne
Hanna Osbourne

I grew up on a vegetable farm and my dad is a third generation farmer in the Hunter Valley.

Genetic modification can be a prickly subject to raise at the dinner table, but not if you are Hannah Osborn.

Hannah is an ANU PhD student with a passion for plant science and a farming background.

“I grew up on a vegetable farm and my dad is a third generation farmer in the Hunter Valley,” says Hannah from the Research School of Biology's von Caemmerer Lab and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

“We’ve been growing potatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, sorghum, and corn – everything under the sun!”

Hannah is passionate about advocating for genetically modified (GM) crops because she understands that farmers ‘care about the earth’ and its people.

“GM is safe and it’s been around for 20 years,” she says.

“Our population is increasing exponentially and we’re not meeting the demands agriculturally.

“Projections suggest that we need to increase food, fibre, fuel and feed for livestock by up to 70% by the year 2050. That’s a massive increase requiring many different approaches to meet that outcome.”

To meet this growing demand for food, policy makers and groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are looking to science for the next agricultural revolution.

But unlike previous agricultural revolutions that relied on plant breeding to change crop genetics, this revolution will rely on biotechnology and GM. 

“If we can improve the yield from a particular crop it’s going to help farmers and it’s going to help us as well,” she says.

And this is exactly what Hannah is trying to do as part of her research. Her work focuses on modifying how plants capture and store energy to increase crop yield.

“Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide and sunlight,” she says.  

But if plants can’t get enough carbon dioxide to the place where they need it they ‘don’t produce as much sugars’.

To help plants become more efficient at fixing carbon dioxide into the food that we eat, Hannah is investigating a group of proteins called aquaporins which are thought to be  CO2 permeable.

“If we can increase the level of these aquaporins in the plant you’re going to get more carbon dioxide entering into the whole chain. Therefore you can possibly increase yield,” she says.

While Hannah’s research is in its early stages, her work could be part of the solution to our food security crisis.

And rather than creating ‘frankenfood’ she may just help provide the food to feed the world.

Updated:  20 September 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB/Page Contact:  Webmaster RSB