Spotlight on Leon Kochian

Getting to the roots of global food security

With a rapidly changing climate and the world’s population predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, ensuring enough nutritious food for all is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Estimates are that food production in developing countries will need to double or triple to meet the growing need.

Finding ways to produce higher yielding crops that also use less water, energy and other agricultural inputs is a daunting challenge. Fortunately, Leon Kochian, the newly appointed Canada Excellence Research Chair in Food Systems and Security at the University of Saskatchewan, is up for the task.

Kochian believes that a key part of the answer will be breeding plants to have healthier and more vigorous roots to enable more efficient uptake of water and nutrients. By furthering his research into unlocking the secrets of the plant’s “hidden half”—the root system—he is undertaking a largely unexplored aspect of plant research and crop development.

“Targeted breeding of superior root traits is something that is just now happening across the world,” says Kochian. “Root-based approaches to crop improvement will ultimately lead to new crop varieties with higher yields and greater resilience to thrive in the world’s less fertile soils.”

Kochian will join the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a $50 million partnership founded in 2012 between PotashCorp, the Saskatchewan government and the university. He will serve as GIFS’ associate director and hold faculty positions in plant sciences and soil science at the university’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

 It’s critical that we find solutions to help local breeders sustainably deal with agricultural conditions in their regions. 

For the past decade, Kochian has led an international team of crop researchers whose work has greatly increased understanding of the genes and associated functions that enable crop root systems to deal with poor soils; particularly, where crop production is limited by insufficient mineral nutrients and toxic metals.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the developing world and witness first-hand the problems that local farmers in these countries are facing,” he said. “It’s critical that we find solutions to help local breeders sustainably deal with agricultural conditions in their regions.”

After more than 30 years at Cornell University and the US Department of Agriculture, Kochian aims to build upon the University of Saskatchewan’s “long-standing excellence in agricultural research and innovation to advance Canada’s capacity as a leader in addressing global food security.”

Kochian will lead research into identifying and mapping the genes linked to root system traits that are specifically responsible for nutrient and water uptake under drought conditions. This work will involve a cross-disciplinary team of scientists from molecular biology, genetics, and plant physiology, as well as computer science and engineering. He anticipates this research will enable increased crop production in less fertile areas, such as in developing countries with acidic soils. Such soils comprise up to 50 per cent of the world's potentially arable lands.

Kochian and his team will develop and use new tools for imaging roots in the soil, looking at how root systems are laid out three-dimensionally and investigating their structure and function. Understanding this root system “architecture” is becoming increasingly important to crop breeders as drought, flooding and other extreme weather events, as well as increasing soil infertility, threaten the amount of healthy soil available for food production.

Kochian’s team will use the Canadian Light Source synchrotron and other revolutionary root imaging tools at the university, along with the latest computer technology to digitize desired crop traits (known as phenotypes). This will help them develop a design for root system breeding tailored to specific growing environments for major crops—such as wheat, barley, lentils and canola—both in Canada and around the world.

“The University of Saskatchewan provides a vast array of new technologies and interdisciplinary expertise that will enable us to develop tools to rapidly image root architecture on thousands of plants, resulting in a big digital database like never before,” he says. “We’re creating a world-class centre for root phenotyping—an understudied area that has recently become of great interest due to climate change.”

Coming to one of Canada’s leading agricultural universities, located in a province that is a world leader in crop production and a major supplier of fertilizer, gives Kochian a natural hub where his team can work with producers and other partners around the world “to promote adoption of new crops and technologies and help address daunting global food security challenges.”

For Kochian, the University of Saskatchewan is a “powerhouse for agri-food research, a place where linkages can be fostered between agricultural scientists, crop geneticists, toxicologists, veterinary scientists, hydrologists, nutrition experts, and policy researchers, ­which will greatly expand the relevance and impact of our research.”

Having both economic and humanitarian importance, the team’s work will also result in technology solutions to promote efficient agricultural use of water, soil, and energy resources, and generate the data needed to inform practices and public policies across the global food supply chain.