Maurice Moloney

Food for thought

The future of food security is complex and murky, but Maurice Moloney’s vision for the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) is crystal clear.

"We've set the goal to triple our funding so that we can become sustainable and successful like VIDO or the Global Institute for Water Security," said Moloney who became executive director and CEO of the institute in October. "It is absolutely realistic to double our funding by landing federal dollars for research. Tripling funding will take extra effort and likely additional funding partners."

Increased money for GIFS, which is currently funded by a partnership between the U of S, the Government of Saskatchewan, PotashCorp and Viterra, will support a growing research agenda focused on results that are applicable locally, nationally and internationally.

"Though we already have sizeable contributions from our partners, scientists are notorious in being able to get through millions rather quickly," said Moloney with a laugh. "But that's what it takes for science that is internationally recognized and that will make our partners and stakeholders proud."

The science conducted through the institute, he explained, will lead to knowledge that is both commercially and philanthropically useful. "It is important to have economic impact in developed economies and serve the needs of farmers in developing countries."

An example of the type of science Moloney, a world-renowned plant scientist, sees GIFS undertaking, is the push-pull agriculture developed by John Pickett, a chemical ecologist at Rothamsted Research in the U.K.—Europe's largest food security institute where Moloney was once director.

"They studied the invisible signaling between plants, insects and fungi. Pickett's lab has identified thousands of signaling compounds," explained Moloney, adding that this is an example of translating high-technology research into low-technology applications.

In African countries like Kenya and Nigeria, corn yields are about 0.9 tons per hectare, a level that is barely subsistence, he continued. There are many reasons for this low yield, top of the list being a corn-boring insect. Pickett's research discovered that a low stature plant called Desmodium repelled corn borers.

"That's the push aspect of push-pull agriculture. The pull aspect is a plant called Napier grass that does the opposite and attracts corn borers. As soon as the corn borers lay eggs on the leaves, the eggs are consumed by a sticky substance and the life cycle of corn borers ends."

The result of planting alternating rows of corn and Desmodium in fields surrounded by Napier grass was corn yields of 3.5 tons per hectare compared to the original 0.9 tons. The economic difference is dramatic.

"With such improved yields everything changes. Those farmers have a surplus of crops and that stimulates the economy. They can buy goats now, that's like you or I buying a foreign car. It's creating a new economic cycle."

This is the type of research Moloney envisions GIFS undertaking. "With the right people we can develop things of this nature with significant impact on agribusiness and subsistence farming."

In the short term, Moloney said the signs of success for GIFS would be recruiting "credible scientific leaders with a steep trajectory. Those people will do discovery science that is internationally compelling and will be successful in competing for funds."

He is positive in thinking he can attract these scientists to the U of S. "I will tell them they can do more science per year here than they can elsewhere, they have enormous opportunity to collaborate, and we are well invested in key research facilities like the CLS, VIDO, CDC. I will also lie about winter," he said with a smile.

The expertise of those individuals, Moloney continued, will need to be aligned with one of the pillars GIFS has identified to build its science around.

The first pillar is seed biology and plant development to create traits that thrive in drought or extreme weather. The second is "looking at what's below ground. Soil science is important and we are very good at that, but we need to study the biosphere of soil: what it is. It's teeming with life and all that life interacts with crops, protecting them from pathogens, stimulating growth improving nutrient utilization. So we need to look at the interface between soil, micro-organisms and root systems."

A third pillar is digitization of agriculture—the use of technology to improve production. That includes using global data sets to predict production, remote sensing to measure moisture and nutrients, precision agriculture using GPS and, eventually, combines and seeders that do not require drivers.

"Even just in the infancy of this area there have been lots of improvements. It can bring major benefits to farmers by reducing inputs, increasing yields and increasing margins."

In five years time, Moloney said he expects some of the research at the institute to move to "translation and out to developing worlds. I would like to see this work boost the standing of the university in the world. That will create magnetism. I could see the institute, if we are really successful, having six or seven pillars and a critical mass of 100 or more researchers."

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