16 September 2009
Dr Ros Gleadow
Monash researcher Dr Ros Gleadow and her team have received international recognition for their research into the impact of climate change on food crops in the developing world.
The research has found that the leaves of cassava - a major staple food source for more than 500 million people - become more toxic when grown at higher levels of carbon dioxide. The edible tubers do not, but the yield is much smaller, which is potentially very serious.
Cassava belongs to a group of plants that produce chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides, which break down to release poisonous cyanide gas when they are crushed or chewed.
"The ability of people and herbivores, such as cattle, to break down cyanide depends largely on eating sufficient protein," Dr Gleadow said.
"Anyone largely reliant on cassava for food, particularly during drought, are at risk of developing konzo and other diseases through cyanide poisoning if the food is not properly processed."
Dr Gleadow said the 50 per cent or greater drop in tuber yield also caused concern.
"We need to start developing new cultivars now to be ready for the higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in the coming 25 years," Dr Gleadow said.
"Reducing carbon emissions wouldn't be a bad idea either."
Dr Gleadow's team includes Tim Cavagnaro from Monash, Julie Cliff and Anabela Zacarias from Eduardo Modigliani University in Mozambique and John Evans and Howard Bradbury from ANU.
In addition to worldwide media attention, the peer-reviewed journal Plant Biology has published a paper on the research.
The research is funded by the Finkel Foundation, the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International and Marketing) and AusAID.