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Future Crops, at the University of Leeds, is using its world-leading fundamental plant science to generate real-world solutions for smarter, more efficient and sustainable agri-systems

The imperative to produce more sufficiently nutritious food in a changing climate while at the same time striving to achieve net zero carbon agriculture is a complex problem of enormous scale. 

Future Crops is focused on working with breeders and growers to help meet these grand challenges. Our researchers are providing platforms to integrate innovative technologies with established industry practice, creating more profitable and sustainable ways of producing food.

Yield and resilience We are using our strong research base in root biology and rhizosphere processes to identify and mitigate constraints on production arising from structural components of the environment, including soil depth, compaction, and planting density. We are also studying the role of root exudates in the formation of rhizosheaths – cylinders of soil attached to root surfaces – that are thought to help maintain root hydration during periods of water deficit. Soil-binding exudates are being identified and explored as novel selectable traits.

Increases in seasonal temperature variation are having adverse effects on plant growth and productivity, in part by affecting flowering time. New research on the effect of temperature on flowering time in winter wheat has shown that flowering is triggered at much higher temperature than previously thought, information that is of immediate value to breeders. We are also using climate and crop models to ensure that breeding targets are relevant to future agro-climatic conditions. As part of this approach, we are studying the effects of temperature on plant pathogens, particularly parasitic nematodes, in order to predict and mitigate emerging problems in plant pathology.

Sustainability Reducing reliance on inputs with high carbon footprints, including fertilisers and irrigation, is critical to the sustainability challenge. Steeper, deeper root systems are better able to access water and leeched nitrate that accumulates in deeper soil horizons.
Research at Leeds has identified gene-editable technology that can induce steeper, deeper rooting into existing elite wheat and barley cultivars, allowing them to perform better in low-input farming systems. Our research is also exploring the extent to which mycorrhizal associations with current wheat varieties can reduce reliance on nitrate and phosphate fertilisers. By combining the understanding of the control of root system architecture and rhizosphere biology, including mycorrhization and root exudates, we are also exploring ways to increase soil carbon capture in the agricultural context.

Nutrition and human health A guiding principle of Future Crops is that our innovations, both in terms of crop varieties and management regimes, should not reduce nutritional value. Further, we are also identifying ways to increase human health through improved varieties and help growers explore alternative crops, as shifts in eating habits and the UK’s agro-climatic conditions open up potential new markets.

Contact: FutureCrops@leeds.ac.uk