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How can we alleviate world hunger? Q&A with Professor Herbert Kronzucker

U of T Scarborough Distinguished Professor Herbert Kronzucker oversees research dedicated to making stronger, more productive food crops at the Canadian Centre for World Hunger Research (CCWHR).

If there’s one overriding ambition driving Professor Herbert Kronzucker’s research, it’s to see the eradication of world hunger.

As the director of the Canadian Centre for World Hunger Research (CCWHR) at UTSC, he oversees research dedicated to making stronger, more productive food crops. Outside of the lab he’s equally as passionate about issues surrounding food security and world hunger.

This past summer he was named a Distinguished Professor by the University of Toronto, becoming one of only 27 faculty university-wide to receive the designation.

He recently sat down with writer Don Campbell to discuss his pioneering research on improving food crops and the important work of trying to alleviate world hunger. 

What’s currently happening at the Canadian Centre for World Hunger Research?

We’re constantly looking at different ways to improve food crops and we’re doing this by cultivating some exciting collaborations among researchers at UTSC. Professor Greg Vanlerberghe is looking at the stress biology of plants, while Andre and Myrna Simpson are doing NMR research on the metabolism of rice plants and how these plants optimize nutrient use. We’re looking at ways to reprogram metabolism in plants through a process known as nutrient poising. The aim is to improve the growth and yield of the rice crop significantly without the use of biotechnology and there have been some exciting findings around that.

We have researchers looking at nutrient, water, and toxicant dynamics in rice plants as well as in the soils used to grow rice with the hope of increasing the yields of elite strains of rice. This also involves developing cultivation strategies suitable to areas afflicted by major stresses such as drought and salinity. We’re also collaborating with research institutes around the world. We’re very lucky to work closely with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) who supply us with genotypes of rice. We have some of world’s most salt-tolerant and salt-sensitive varities of rice, not to mention the world’s highest yielding rice crops.

What other current research is keeping you busy?

There are currently fifteen projects on the go in my lab. We’re looking at potassium-nitrogen optimization and developing rice plants that are more efficient on the membrane level. We’re also working on a particular rice plant where the genotype doesn’t change but that will grow twice as much as a regular plant while consuming less water in the process.

Reducing water consumption by plants is a big theme for us. Agriculture consumes the largest fraction of water among all human water use. More than 70 per cent of surface water and 85 per cent of green water (precipitation) goes into agriculture. And rice is one of the thirstiest crops in the world. On average you need 2,000 litres of water to grow 1 kilogram of rice grain.  To reduce water consumption even slightly is of great importance to us. A trick we developed is poising, which involves getting the potassium and nitrogen levels just right to make the plant much more efficient. Not only does it grow larger and produce more grain, it produces larger seeds in greater quantity. The yield per plant is much larger but it also gets there by consuming less water. 

The issue of world hunger is one that is important to you. What do you think are the crucial first steps in tackling and eventually alleviating world hunger?

I think a good first step is acknowledging that food is a limited quantity. We’re running out of good land to grow food and the land we are using is often used inefficiently. We’re very inefficient when it comes to food production. In the west we eat far too many calories in the form of animals and we’re wasting a lot of primary agriculture production in the process. On average it takes about 10 kilograms of primary agricultural production to raise 1 kilogram of animal. You could feed many more people by simple rerouting food from livestock to humans. Some estimates show that we would need three planets to feed the entire population of the planet on a North American diet.  

We also waste far too much food. Nearly 40 per cent of total food produced is wasted in Canada simply because it doesn’t look nice. Look at the back of a grocery store!

We’re also dealing with challenges from a changing climate and declining soil fertility, so we need to do a lot of work just to maintain what we got, not to mention the additional mouths to feed in the coming decades. It’s an issue that doesn’t get enough attention. When there is pressure on primary food production, we see a bump in prices at the grocery store and we get annoyed. In other parts of the world, it becomes an existential problem. It’s a sobering thought.

Are there unsung heroes in your field who dedicated their lives to improving food crops and probably haven’t received the recognition they deserve?

Oh yes, Gurdev Khush is one for sure. He headed up the rice breeding program at IRRI for 30 years. He almost single-handedly improved global rice yields by more than 200 per cent. His ingenuity was uncanny. He was an artist and could tell which rice crops could crossbreed with others to improve their yield. He gave us many of the modern rice varieties that feed the world. When people go to restaurants little do they know that Khush’s fingerprints are all over the rice they’re eating. I remember when he came to deliver a lecture when I was at Western and I had goosebumps. I don’t feel that way when I see a celebrity like Matt Damon, but I certainly did when I met Khush.

What sparked your passion and interest in the topic of world hunger and food security?

I was raised in small towns throughout Germany. My grandparents had a farm. My mother also had a love of plants and animals. As a boy, I was involved in the potato and sugar beet harvest, as well as sowing barley and wheat in the springtime, so from an early age I have been around food production. I knew where food came from. For me it was always an obvious and natural thing.

But the moment everything changed was when I was invited by IRRI to tour their facility in Los Baños, Philippines. It was a big eye opener, travelling from Manila to Los Baños. It was a very different world. I was taken out to the fields in large high rubber boots to see the field breeding program in person and I saw for the first time an immense ocean of green from the rice paddies. It was rice everywhere. That’s when it occurred to me how important this place was in terms of supplying the world’s food. By the time lunch rolled around I decided I had found my calling. The rice did it for me then but I suppose there was a connectedness that started from me growing up on a farm. 


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