DEVELOPING lifesaving bananas to feed some of the world’s poorest people and crops that can survive global warming and feed the planet, is the passion of scientist and humanitarian James Dale.
The Queensland University of Technology Distinguished Professor has been named the state’s Senior Australian of the Year, but the award is only one in a string of accolades for the 68-year-old agricultural biotechnologist whose career taken him from Australia to Europe and more recently Africa.
Professor Dale and his team have enriched East African bananas with pro-vitamin A to improve nutrition and prevent the vitamin deficiency which leads to the deaths of around 670,000 children each year in developing countries and blindness in another 400,000. He also founded Australia’s first molecular farming company, Farmacule Bioindustries.
Despite being described as a humanitarian, Professor Dale says he is first and foremost, a scientist.
His research is destined to make a huge difference in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people as well as Australian banana growers as his team has also developed a disease resistant Cavendish banana strain.
Professor Dale’s work in Africa is backed by almost $20 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as one of its prestigious Grand Challenges in Global Health. It is one of only a handful of projects selected from thousands submitted for funding by the philanthropic Foundation.
Other projects included developing new vaccines, antibiotics and control of insect vectors.
Bananas are a staple food in East African countries. In Uganda the average consumption of bananas is half a kilo per person per day from the very young to the very old, and in some cases as much as a kilo a day.
The result of years of research, the new bananas developed by Professor Dale and his colleagues – called Golden Bananas because of their golden orange rather than cream coloured flesh – are now being grown in field trials in Uganda by scientists from that country who came to Queensland to complete their studies. They are expected to be available for growing by farmers in the near future.
Professor Dale was born in Sydney and did his undergraduate degree and PhD at the University of Sydney before heading to Europe where his interest in genetic engineering took off.
“That was incredible because it was a time when recombinant DNA technology was really getting going and Europe was on fire with it,” he said.
“I thought at the time, wow this technology is going to revolutionise the world, but at that time we never thought there were going to be any negative feelings about genetic modification.”
The professor is quick to point out that the work he does is a team effort.
“You can’t do this sort of work by yourself. It’s lovely that I get the accolades but I’ve got a team of terrific people.”
He is passionate in his belief that the solution to feeding the earth’s increasing population will fall to genetic engineering; and his personal future as helping develop climate-change resistant crops to ensure food and nutritional security in a world also beset by global warming.
“When most people talk about climate change they seem to be obsessed with the cost of energy but the big impact is much more likely to be on food and nutritional security,” he said.
“We’re starting to see that in Australia and Africa. In Australia we’re seeing more droughts and we’re seeing higher temperatures. In Africa it’s a little bit different particularly in Uganda.”
He explained that the the traditional regular-as-clockwork wet seasons in countries like Uganda, when farmers would know almost to the day when to plant their crops, were no longer as predictable. “They will plant and then it will go dry for three weeks to a month and the seedlings germinate and then they die.
“We’re going to need all the technology we have available to us to develop crops in the future which can withstand the assaults of climate change,” he said.
“This is also at a time when the demand for food is going to be massive because we’re talking about 9.5 to 10 billion people in the world by 2050. We’re seeing an increasing number of middle classes in Asia and they want to eat more protein, more animal protein.
“We don’t have the resources for that without using every bit of technology we have. And that includes, very importantly, genetic modification.
“We have to really take it seriously and start being sensible about how we’re going to develop new crops, and I bang on about this message as much as I can because very few people are taking it seriously,” he said.
“I will continue to work as a scientist but also continue to communicate the message that we face some real challenges, and we’ve really got to start thinking it through, not deny climate change – because there is climate change – and not blaming everyone else. We’ve got to get on and do stuff.”
And when you take the scientist out of the global garden you will often find him in his own. Professor Dale and his wife Ged are also keen gardeners on their 10 hectare Queensland property.
The couple also enjoy travelling and spending time with family – they have three children and four much adored grandchildren.
Professor Dale will now go forward to the national Australian of the Year Awards which are announced for Australia Day on January 26.