Cambridge University scientists believe new strains of self-fertilising ‘supercrops’ have the potential to allow the poorest regions of the world to successfully feed their populations once again.
Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the University of Cambridge.
Professor Giles Oldroyd, who leads the programme at the university’s Sainsbury Laboratory, says plants which can capture nitrogen from the air, and other emerging breakthroughs, could transform the ability of the world’s population to feed itself by 2050.
The billionaire Bill Gates and the British government are both direct funders of the lab’s work, with the renowned philanthropist recently visiting Cambridge to be updated on progress which promises to unleash the potential of small-holder farms across sub-Saharan Africa.
The laboratory is also seeking to connect crops with a network of underground fungi – which could reduce the need for phosphate fertilisers.
The overuse of fertilisers of all types is a significant problem worldwide, resulting both in widespread environmental damage and an increase in greenhouse gases.
“The largest opportunity is in sub-Saharan Africa, where smallholders currently get only 15% of their potential yield,” Professor Oldroyd says.
“Improving that situation means overcoming means three significant bottlenecks: the nitrogen bottleneck, the phosphorous bottleneck and a water bottleneck – with nitrogen being one of the greatest limitations.”
“If we can overcome one, or even all of these obstacles, that would increase their yield significantly.”
With 950 million people, or 13% of the world’s population, more than 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers. However, despite the extensive available agricultural land, the continent is still dependent on grain imports to feed its people.
Last year, a McKinsey report entitled, ‘Winning In African Agriculture’, estimated the continent needs eight times more fertilizer, six times more improved seed, $8 billion of investment in basic storage, and $65 billion in irrigation to fulfil its agricultural promise.
With these improvements the region, which sprawls across 48 African countries - with the exception of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa – would produce between two or three times more grain and cereals, and add 20% to worldwide production, the study found.
Scientists hope that with the adoption of more sustainable and innovative methods of fertilising their crops, Africa could achieve its potential while avoiding the dangerous impacts of both pollution and climate change.
Incredibly, some plants have already demonstrated the ability to work with microorganisms to help them find new sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, where little exist in their immediate environment, and it is these previously neglected skills that scientists are keen to develop.
“Our work is on the unique relationship between plants and a number of organisms facilitated by the plants,” Professor Oldroyd says. “It focuses on how plants capture nitrogen from the air, which is plentiful, but also the fungal interaction between plants, nitrogen, phosphates, nitrates and water.”
The developments could bring significant advances to the region, where there have been longstanding practical issues with how to deliver fertiliser.
“Seventy per cent of the world’s poorest people are smallholder farmers. We can either say, it’s too difficult and we can’t address it and let it collapse – or try and take action,” he says.
“The best way to address their livelihoods is to address productivity, so my job is to demonstrate what is feasible,” he says.
“We can’t get big, heavy commodities to smallholder farmers without addressing the infrastructure of the country. However, if you can put the technology into the seeds, then it is much more mobile, and more likely to reach the intended user.”
“Our funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has an explicit focus on sub Saharan Africa, although it might have a much broader effect.”
Simply solving the first part of the equation, thereby allowing crops to get enough nitrogen, would allow many African farmers to double their production, he adds.
Many already hope this potential advance could also see Africa avoid following the potentially high polluting adoption of inorganic fertilisers, leapfrogging ahead, in the same way the continent skipped landlines to become a bigger mobile phone user than both the US and EU.
The team discovered that cereal plants already have the basic biological and genetic machinery to pull in fertiliser from the air. Experiments show the potential of new ‘super crops’ which could naturally forge partnerships with the common bacteria found in soil to grab atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that fuels plant growth.
A second feature of the research has revealed the partnership between plants and ultrafine filaments underground, in which the plants trade some of their stores of carbon, while extracting phosporous from sources previously unknown, in a process known as arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis.
Professor Oldroyd’s believes the innovation could greatly reduce the use of phosphate fertiliser.
He says: “In the past 20 years in the field there has been an explosion in our knowledge of what’s happening inside the plant. It is like night and day compared to 20 years ago when we didn’t understand a single genetic component.”
“The primary areas we are advancing is free-living nitrogen fixes and the understanding of the bacteria associated with plant roots. We’re currently seeing a lot of investment going into investigating this associative bacteria.
“At the moment, we can’t say that we are replacing nitrogen fertiliser, but I am an optimist in that regard. Our capabilities have moved on so significantly.
“If I look at the advances that have been made over the past two decades, I am extremely optimistic that we can use that information to make meaningful changes to our agricultural systems.”
The invention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also been a significant one, he says: “The market is not working and many of these farmers are growing ancient varieties of crops, including maize from the 1960’s. The farmer is stuck in a cycle of poverty, where they suffer from having no power, as well as struggling with corruption and poor infrastructure.
“By 2050, I hope they can be getting a lot of their agricultural nitrogen from bacteria; it would result in a massive change in the productivity of crops. It’s also a double challenge, because the world needs a more sustainable system at the same time as it increases productivity for an ever more demanding population.
“Today, we are in the middle of an explosion of the biological sciences, let’s hope by the middle of the century, we can create super crops that will deliver increasing yields and provide a better up take of nitrogen.
“If we succeed, we can begin to address food insecurity in the places where it is very insecure. Africa’s population will increase its population by a billion in the coming decades. So, there is a huge opportunity to increase food production, just in the place where it is needed most.”
Giles Oldroyd is the Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the University of Cambridge.