Giles Oldroyd hopes his research in self-fertilising crops can increase yields for farmers in the developing world and reduce pollution.
The Fitzwilliam College Fellow, who is the director of the Crop Science Centre, leads an international programme focused on engineering nitrogen-fixing cereals, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called Engineering the Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project.
Giles’ team aims to understand the signalling and developmental processes in plants that allows interactions with fungi and bacteria, that help plants acquire limiting nutrients, thus eliminating the need for artificial fertilisers.
Their work has potential to deliver more sustainable and secure food production systems, with particular potential to deliver significant yield improvements to the poorest farmers in the world, who have little access to fertilisers.
It can also help reduce the damage caused by the escape of fertilisers to the environment. Fertilisers leach into water systems and cause eutrophication, which results in a collapse in the biodiversity of aquatic systems.
“My long-term aim is to reduce as much as possible the utilisation of nutrients in agriculture,” Giles tells fitz.cam.ac.uk.
“We can eradicate nitrogen, theoretically, by using nitrogen-fixing symbioses. And we can greatly reduce the amounts of phosphate and probably potassium you need to apply by improving the fungal association.
“But more importantly, when you apply them, we can ensure you’re losing less out into the environment, so we’re not having all the environmental consequences.
“So many industrial processes have been massively improved in their efficiency, but agriculture is not one of them. We just accept there’s a vast amount of pollution because we have to produce food, and we accept all the consequences in the environment.
“If you look at the 20th century, all of the agricultural problems were solved by chemistry, and in the 21st century, I think we can replace most of those with biological solutions.
“Some of those will involve biotechnology, which society might not like, but if you’re talking about removing nitrogen out of the environment, are you willing to accept a GM (genetically modified) crop if it totally removes the need for fertilisers? That’s a very different discussion.
“We can certainly optimise agricultural production far greater than it currently is – I’d love to see some genuine impact and we’ve got a lot of potential.”
Giles, who spent some of his childhood in Zambia, believes the result in sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to be similar to that in telecommunications.
He adds: “They skipped the old technology, because they couldn’t afford the infrastructure of landlines, but when mobile phones came in everyone had one and was connected.
“That technology is now accessible and they skipped the expensive, historic technology. I’d hope we could do something similar with agriculture, with a much more sustainable production system which is accessible to a small holder farmer.”
Giles’ research focuses on improving the yields of small holder farmers, but he is interested in how we make mass produced crops, such as maize, wheat and rice, more sustainable as well.
He adds: “For small holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa it’s all gain for them, if we get these systems working. You can at least double, possibly triple their yields.
“But you can’t get the same yield from microbial delivered nutrients as you can from fertiliser delivered nutrients, so for a developed world farmer here in the UK currently dependent on fertilisers, the argument becomes one of sustainability. Are you willing to accept a 10% to 20% yield penalty in order to gain the sustainability of the system? From an economic perspective, that’s an interesting challenge.
“There’s a lot of drive now towards sustainability. A lot of food production companies want to say they’re doing it sustainably. But to achieve sustainability there will be a cost, otherwise we’d be doing it right now. What level of cost are we willing to accept?”
Giles says the yield penalties would be less severe than those in organic farming, where the product is more expensive, but the answer to his question is one for the future.
As for his own mission, he says: “I’ve always been passionate about having an impact. That’s definitely something I care about.”