Vietnam based Australian company Orlar is making a big impact in sustainable agriculture

The secret rock that could help feed the world and the ‘nerdy’ Australian scientist who discovered it

Food. In the end our survival depends on our capacity to feed ourselves without destroying the planet. As our numbers increase, this seems nigh impossible. But a system invented by a NSW woman and trialled in Vietnam looks set to revolutionise the whole food-land-planet relationship – or, at least, buy us time.

Lyndal Hugo had a background in agroscience, a Sydney Uni PhD in environmental chemistry and a post-doctoral fellowship on pesticide residues in South-East Asian food chains. It made her, she says, “a nerdy scientist – way over-educated and practically useless”. Except for three things – an idea, a piece of luck and a dream.

The luck was that, when working on environmental accounting for big mining and agriculture companies in Australia and China, she’d encountered a particular rock. (Exactly what rock remains a closely guarded secret.) The idea was that this rock, treated in particular ways (also secret), had extraordinary potential not in mining but as “a home for microbes”. And the dream? It was to change the world.

Specifically, it involved growing fresh leafy vegetables that were safe, sustainable, nutritious, affordable and ethically produced with no single-use plastics, chemical residues, wastewater or carbon emissions. Oh, and to make enough money doing it to render the model replicable – hence, to change the world.

Now it seems she, via her company Orlar, is almost there. Rewind several years. Hugo yearned to do something meaningful. Her wife, Amanda Cornelissen, said: “You’ve got 12 months to go play.” But funding was hard to come by. “Women have 2 per cent the chance of men of raising capital,” Hugo reflects without bitterness. So, she and Cornelissen headed to Ho Chi Minh City. It was meant to be six months. That was five years ago.

“Never take a dream to the developing world,” says Hugo now – though with obvious love for the place. It was $600 for two one-way fares home: “For years we never had more than that in the bank … We lived in a tin shed with dirt floors, tipping a bucket over our heads for a shower.” Now, government grants pile up and investors beat a path to their door.

So, what’s the system? It’s not indoor agriculture. Hugo is clear about that. The difference is that indoor agriculture normally requires huge energy inputs for temperature control and lighting. It requires a strictly controlled environment – workers in hazmat suits – to limit disease, which is virtually impossible in a developing country. And it either has high carbon emissions or, if solar-powered, the solar panels occupy large areas of land, with concomitant biodiversity impact.

Orlar’s system – now a business that supplies Vietnam’s top 200 restaurants and most middle-class supermarkets – uses greenhouses, with light and warmth provided gratis by the sun. The key, though, is in the secret rock. It has three seemingly magical properties: enormous thermal mass, the ability to retain water against the pull of gravity and an affinity for microbes.