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Successful Funding Bids Set To Identify Kiwifruit Plant Stress And Optimise Forestry Yield

Published: Tue 30 Nov 2021 09:37 AM
It was a double funding win for PlantTech in the Endeavour Fund. Scientists from Tauranga’s PlantTech Research Institute are celebrating their involvement in two successful funding bids to the Ministry for Business, Innovation & Employment’s (MBIE) Endeavour Fund, Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest contestable research fund. In this year’s round of funding, 69 new scientific research projects were awarded more than $244 million.
Tauranga headquartered PlantTech Research Institute is leading a two-year international project, that will use airborne remote sensors to discover what is causing plant stress in kiwifruit orchards, thanks to a successful bid for $1 million.
Another MBIE-funded project, led by Scion, Seeing the forest for the trees: transforming tree phenotyping for future forests, involves using PlantTech’s capability in hyperspectral imagery analysis to support research that will identify the best genotype to plant in different environments for commercial production and indigenous uses.A 3D model of radiation transport to enable high yield photosynthetic efficient crops
Research started last month on an airborne remote sensor project, which will determine how a sensor can measure sun-induced fluorescence (SIF) – an indicator of photosynthetic activity and plant stress, such as a lack of water, high temperatures and nutrient deficiency.
Principal Research Scientist Dr Alvaro Orsi is leading the project and explains that data from multiple aerial and ground sensors will be used to generate maps showing kiwifruit photosynthetic activity.
“These maps will help kiwifruit growers understand what regions in their orchards are photosynthesising less efficiently and pinpoint the cause of this plant stress. Such capability will allow growers to improve kiwifruit orchard productivity and environmental sustainability,” says Dr Orsi.
The project will address horticultural challenges by exploiting the use of SIF as a diagnostic of photosynthesis efficiency. Dr Orsi says although SIF has been recognised as a robust probe of photosynthesis activity, traditional techniques to infer and interpret SIF fail to account for the complex structure of the vegetative canopy, thus having a detrimental impact on the calculations.
“This project aims to leverage modern artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to deliver robust predictions by constructing a 3D virtual orchard based on data collected on real orchards. The virtual orchard will simulate how sunlight interacts with the kiwifruit canopy, including the photosynthesis process and the chlorophyll fluorescence emission. This simulation will deliver an accurate prediction of canopy reflectance and fluorescence spectrum that can be compared against real measurements. This will enable the scientists to understand what analysis steps are necessary to reproduce the observed canopy reflectance from an airborne hyperspectral sensor.”
“We also plan to leverage information from kiwifruit orchard yield maps. By comparing these maps with the 3D virtual orchard simulation, our technology will reveal the impact of plant stress and photosynthetic efficiency on orchard productivity. This will enable a pathway to improve productivity by optimising management practices.”
The project has assembled a team of experts from PlantTech, Plant & Food Research, Eurofins Ltd., Massey University, Melbourne University in Australia, and Durham University in the United Kingdom with international expertise in remote sensing, numerical physical simulations, machine learning, and computer vision.
The result will provide positive economic, innovation and environmental impacts for Aotearoa New Zealand by guiding localised orchard management practices to address specific sources of stress.
“Such a strategy will result in further optimisation of irrigation and fertilisation management, and crop yield and quality overall by promoting a pathway to enable photosynthetically-efficient crops,” says Dr Orsi.
“These impacts will help mitigate the global challenges of increasing world demand for sustainable food production, as climate change makes traditional orchard management practices progressively more obsolete.
“Improved horticultural practices will make horticultural businesses more financially sustainable. In the first instance these benefits will flow to the kiwifruit industry, as Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest horticultural exporter, and kiwifruit growers in particular,” he says.
“In time, the benefits will transfer into other horticultural exports, such as the avocado, apples, and pears export sectors.”
PlantTech Chief Executive Mark Begbie says he is delighted with the funding win.
“Maintaining food supply and production efficiency in the face of climate change will become increasingly challenging. Through this work, we will develop techniques that help us to manage limited resources more efficiently and derive understandings that can give us deeper insights into crop health. By doing this using remote sensing data we create a scalable solution with the potential to have global impact across entire industries.”Seeing the Forest for the Trees
The institute is working with project lead Crown Research Institute (CRI) Scion on a five-year, $9.6 million project called ‘Seeing the Forest for the Trees: transforming tree phenotyping for future forests’ that will explore the phenotype (characteristics) of trees to identify trees that grow well in specific environments.
The research programme is focussed on forest phenotyping using remotely sensed data and advanced concepts in data science. Combined with genomic data, Scion expects to select and breed trees with traits such as high carbon storage and resistance to disease and drought. For example, in Gisborne it may become more important to use a drought resistant radiata pine if droughts increase in severity.
Scion Data and Geospatial Intelligence Principal Scientist Dr Mike Watt welcomes PlantTech’s participation in the project, citing their advanced capability in hyperspectral imaging technologies.
PlantTech will use this technology to assess the attributes of trees that can’t be seen by the naked eye, such as the tree’s ability to deal with water stress or disease. “You can’t see those problems so easily with the eye, but hyperspectral imagery can be used to look beyond the visible wavelengths to characterise these traits,” he says.
By the end of the project, Scion plans to have a climate-based deployment guideline developed for radiata pine. Effectively, this would be a map showing where each genotype can be allocated throughout Aotearoa New Zealand to optimise productivity or resistance against water or drought stress.
“We know that if you optimally allocate different genotypes to the right site, then you can get a gain of 20% in productivity. That translates into quite a bit of value for radiata pine,” says Dr Watt.
Radiata pine is not the only focus of the programme. Indigenous forests will also be included, as Scion aims to explore the cultural links that Māori have to forests and taonga (treasure) species.
For example, the researchers want to find out what cultural phenotypes are important to Māori, such as a tree’s potential for carving. It is hoped that cultural phenotyping could incentivise the planting of indigenous tree species leading to more diverse forests and more opportunities for Māori to harvest indigenous trees for carving or other traditional uses.

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