A €8.2m ($10m) grant has been given to researchers at the John Innes Center in the UK to develop GM varieties of corn that are able to absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus eliminating the use of fertilisers.
The multi-million sum from the Gates Foundation was officially signed two weeks ago and will fund a five year project investigating ‘nitrogen fixation’ in the cereal grain.
Nitrogen fixation is the process of nitrogen in the atmosphere being converted into ammonia. Certain legumes, typically beans, naturally contribute to this process as bacteria in their root systems produces nitrogen compounds that aids plant growth. Once the plant dies, the fixed nitrogen is then released and naturally fertilises the soil.
The long-term aim of the project is to find an environmentally-sustainable solution for smaller corn farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to increase yields.
Zoe Dunford, media manager at the John Innes Center (JIC), told FoodNavigator that scientists will use the investment to further on-going research.
JIC is already involved in research into how legumes self-fertilise and react with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, she said. “With this new grant, the scientists will be able to start investigating the feasibility of enabling cereal crops to start up the same complex relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria.”
Lead scientist Professor Giles Oldroyd at the JIC, said that a new method of nitrogen fertilisation is needed in Africa as fertilisers are unaffordable for small-scale farmers.
“Delivering new technology within the seed of crops has many benefits for farmers as well as the environment, such as self-reliance and equity,” Oldroyd said.
Blue skies or GM crop on the horizon?
“There are no guarantees with this kind of ambitious blue skies research,” Dunford said, but scientists hope that work will persuade cereals to at least recognise nitrogen-fixing bacteria, if not react with it.
“Developing a GM crop variety is a long way down the line,” she said, and availability of the crop in the UK would be up to the public, retailers and policy makers.
Sir Gordon Conway, professor of International Development at Imperial College London, said that such work is the “’Holy grail’ of modern plant breeding”.
To feed the world by 2050 greater yields with less fertilisers will be needed, Conway said, and “one answer is to breed cereal crops that can partner with bacteria in their roots to take in nitrogen from the atmosphere”.
Professor Jules Pretty, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Essex, said: “If we cracked N fixation in cereals, in this case maize in Africa, it would be perhaps the greatest agricultural breakthrough of the century, perhaps of the millennium.”
However, pressure groups GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth (FoE) have both debunked the investment.
Pete Riley, campaign director at GM Freeze said the project is “a waste of money that should have been used on more important and urgent research.”
His group has said that such GM development is not the answer and instead suggested that long crop rotations that use the crops to naturally build up soil fertility by fixing nitrogen should be focused on.
In April 2012 another research institute – Rothamsted Research based in Hertfordshire – sparked controversy with its plans to begin field testing with GM wheat over the next two years.
The Real Bread Campaign hit out against the research due to fears the GM wheat could be commercialised for food use soon and submitted an anti-GM wheat pledge signed by 350 bakers, millers, farmers and consumers to to the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
This article has been amended to state €8.2 million instead of billion.