Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar of Southern Cross University with a black rice diversity panel growing in the polytunnel facility at NSW DPI Wollongbar.

Some people call it a “superfood”, others enjoy it as a somewhat unusual pudding you eat on holidays in Bali. Now black rice is the focus of a $600,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) grant to Southern Cross University (SCU) to determine what drives its nutritional quality.

Plant Science Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar is leading a research team aimed at improving breeding of quality cultivars that can exploit the growing environments of subtropical and northern Australian and enable domestic production of high-value, healthy black rice.

“The demand for functional foods with health benefits, including black rice, is increasing both domestically and internationally,” Assoc Prof Kretzschmar said.

“While high UV levels in Australia are often viewed as a negative climatic factor, this radiation may actually have an advantage in boosting the accumulation of healthy compounds in optimised black rice, making Australia – and specifically the NSW Northern Rivers – well placed to produce the highest quality black rice.”

Black rice’s distinctive dark colour comes from a range of naturally occurring compounds called ‘anthocyanins’, known to be beneficial agents in reducing inflammation. It also has major antioxidant properties that have the potential to reduce the glycaemic index of rice.

Assoc Prof Kretzschmar, who joined SCU two years ago, has worked with rice for more than 10 years, including at the International Rice Research Institute genebank in the Philippines which houses more than 100,000 types of rice.

The black rice project involved identifying 300 lines from a collection that originates from 19 countries across Asia and Africa. For the first time these black rice lines will be grown in Australia, with the backing of the ARC Linkage program.

“This project will pave the way for the development of a profitable crop alternative for farmers in the subtropics and northern Australia,” Assoc Prof Kretzschmar said.

“In the long term this has the potential to improve farm income and increase the financial sustainability of farming businesses, while also creating supply chains in processing and packaging in regional and remote areas
Australia’s southern Riverina region already produces high quality rice. However, the pigmented rice is a niche crop with growth potential in domestic and international markets.

“The project will also provide critical genetic and nutritional information for future breeding of high-value ‘healthy’ rice to help meet the national targets of improving the health of Australians,” said Associate Professor Kretzschmar.