Leon Kochian, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Food Systems and Security.

Finding root solutions

Leon Kochian, one of the world’s most highly cited scientific researchers, was named the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Food Systems and Security at the University of Saskatchewan—a $20-million initiative that will use cutting-edge plant and soil science to help feed a growing world.

“We are excited to recruit an individual of Leon’s research pre-eminence to lead this multidisciplinary program that will drive change in agricultural technologies, practices and policies, while training young scientists in an innovative systems approach to global food security,” said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president research.

“Combined with our $37.2-million Canada First Research Excellence Fund program in food security launched in August and our world-class facilities and agri-food expertise, we are poised to provide transformative and sustainable research solutions to the world.”

Kochian joins the U of S and its Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He will serve as associate director of GIFS—founded  in 2012 by PotashCorp, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the U of S—and will lead the institute’s research on root, soil and microbial interactions. He will also hold faculty appointments in plant sciences and soil science at the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

In announcing the $10-million federal contribution, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale said, “The arrival of Leon Kochian as CERC in Food Systems and Security is a coup for the U of S and for Canadian research. As we examine the social and societal implications of climate change, his work will help strengthen Canadian agriculture—and make our economy more resilient, which will improve our collective well-being and strengthen the middle class.”

The seven-year funding for the $20-million research program comes from the federal government ($10 million), the U of S Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) ($7 million), and the U of S ($3 million). A further $800,000 will be contributed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation towards the cost of a $2-million “Roots of Food Security” research facility to support the work of the CERC team in designing and breeding better crops with more efficient root systems. The remaining funding for the facility will be sought from public and private sources.

“The new crop varieties and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and technologies that Leon and his CERC team will develop at GIFS will have a significant impact in both the developed and developing world,” said Maurice Moloney, GIFS executive director and CEO. “With Leon as a critical part of our growing GIFS team, we will work with producers and other partners around the world to promote adoption of these new crops and technologies in order to address daunting global food security challenges.” 

Kochian and his team aim to improve crops by unlocking the secrets of the plant’s “hidden half”—the root system, an unexplored aspect of plant research and crop development.

“We will develop new root-based approaches to crop improvement that will lead to targeted breeding of superior root traits and ultimately new crop varieties with higher yields and greater capacity to thrive in the world’s less fertile soils,” Kochian said.

The CERC team will use the Canadian Light Source synchrotron and other revolutionary root imaging tools, along with the latest computer technology, to digitize desired crop traits (phenotypes) and link them to specific genes in a searchable database. This will enable tailored design and breeding of root systems to specific agro-environments for the major crops, including wheat, barley, lentils and canola. 

“The successful recruitment of such a highly cited and influential individual to the U of S and the Global Institute for Food Security demonstrates the strength of our province’s research community,” said Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart“Leon Kochian is a skilled, respected researcher whose work, in addition to further establishing Saskatchewan as an international leader in the biosciences, will help feed a growing global population. On behalf of the entire Government of Saskatchewan, I want to congratulate him on this prestigious appointment. We wish him all the best.”

This is the second CERC awarded to the U of S. Howard Wheater holds the U of S CERC in Water Security and leads the Global Water Futures, a $143-million research program that is funded in part by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.  

Kochian talks about the roots of global food security.

About Leon Kochian

  • Named to the 2015 Thomson Reuters list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds, Kochian has earned an international reputation for his work on crop adaptation to marginal soil environments. The 2015 Thomson Reuters ranking is based on a citation analysis that identifies the scientists—as determined by their fellow researchers—who have made the most significant global impact within their respective field of study.

  • For the past decade, Kochian has led an international team of crop researchers using molecular breeding to produce cereal crop varieties with improved yields on highly acidic soils that limit crop production in tropical developing countries.

  • Kochian has published more than 210 peer-reviewed articles in high-profile journals including Nature, Nature Genetics, PLOS Genetics, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as more than 40 reviews, book chapters and proceedings.

  • Since 1997, he has been director of the Robert Holley Center for Agriculture and Health at Cornell University, an internationally respected centre of excellence for crop genomics research.

  • A Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Plant Biologists, he was elected to the Agricultural Research Service Hall of Fame “for internationally recognized pioneering work using molecular biology, genetics and plant breeding to improve crop yields on marginal soils in developing countries.”
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