Leon Kochian

Leon Kochian

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Food Systems and Security

University of Saskatchewan

“With Leon Kochian’s research pre-eminence and leadership, supported by the Global Institute for Food Security, our $37.2-million Canada First Excellence Research Fund program in food security, and the world-class facilities and expertise in our renowned agri-food cluster, we are poised to provide transformative and sustainable research solutions to help feed a growing world.”

― Peter Stoicheff, President, University of Saskatchewan


Leon Kochian is an internationally recognized authority on plant mineral nutrition and crop adaptation to marginal soils.  He joins the University of Saskatchewan from Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lead the CERC program aimed at improving global food production.

In addition to holding a faculty appointment, Kochian will serve as associate executive director of the university’s Global Institute for Food Security, a partnership founded in 2012 by PotashCorp, the Saskatchewan government and the University of Saskatchewan.   

He holds a PhD in plant physiology from the University of California, Davis, and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1997, he has been director of Cornell’s Robert Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, an internationally respected centre of excellence for crop genomics research.

His research has greatly increased understanding of the genes and associated functions enabling crop root systems to deal with poor soil, where crop production is limited by insufficient mineral nutrients or toxic metals. For the past 10 years, he has led an international team of crop researchers from developed and developing countries; together, they are using molecular breeding to produce cereal crop varieties with improved yields in the highly acidic soils that limit crop production in developing tropical countries.

Kochian has been elected to the Agricultural Research Service Hall of Fame, recognized for his pioneering work using molecular biology, genetics and plant breeding to improve crop yields on marginal soils in developing countries. He is a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Plant Biologists.

One of the world’s most highly cited scientific researchers, he 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 conference proceedings.

In 2015, the global news firm Thomson Reuters named Kochian to its 2015 list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds, a citation analysis identifying scientists whose global impact within their respective fields of study has been most significant.

Getting to the Roots of Global Food Security

With the world’s population predicted to reach nine billion by 2050 and food production stagnating, new approaches are needed to mitigate hunger, malnutrition and rising food prices. New ways to improve crop productivity and quality are also urgently needed.

Leon Kochian, a world leader in crop adaptation to marginal soil environments, will lead a multidisciplinary program that aims to unlock the secrets of the plant’s “hidden half”—the root system—previously an unexplored aspect of plant breeding.

Kochian’s transformative research program will develop new root-based approaches to crop improvement that will enable breeding for improved root system structure and function, producing new crop varieties with higher yields and greater capacity to thrive in marginal conditions.

The 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 (known as 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 crops including wheat, barley, lentils and canola. This targeted breeding of superior root traits will result in more active and efficient root systems, ones able to thrive in the world’s less fertile soils.  

Building on the university’s prominence in food-related research, Kochian’s team will promote the adoption of these improved crop varieties and new environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and technologies. They will work with producers and other partners around the world to address the social and economic issues influencing the acceptance of new crops and technologies. 

This work will position Canada to better address daunting food security challenges, both nationally and internationally. It will drive change in agricultural technologies, practice and policy, while training young scientists in an innovative systems approach to global food security. 



Release date

October 11, 2011

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