Helping crops survive drought – and helping farmers to thrive

March 28th, 2012

Growing crops is essential to virtually every nation on the planet.

Crop farming enables food to be produced and it creates and sustains jobs for farmers and numerous related sectors of the economy.

But when prolonged drought strikes an area (think wheat in Egypt or corn in Africa) crop yield, livelihoods – and the economy – can be destroyed. And drought may well intensify around the world as climate change causes huge variations in precipitation and temperature.

U of T alumnus Dr. Julian Northey is striving to use genetic science to help drought-stricken areas keep their crops growing.

Northey, who received his PhD in molecular genetics from U of T in 2009, has formed a company, Frontier Agri-Science Inc. (FAS), to further develop what he calls a “genetic technology” that could be adapted into various types of crop seeds to improve water efficiency and drought resistance in the plant.

The technology is based on graduate research Northey conducted while under the supervision of Professor Peter McCourt, of U of T’s Cell and Systems Biology Department.

“There’s a plant hormone called abscisic acid that is involved in a plant’s response to drought. I have discovered a genetic pathway that hyper-sensitizes the plant to that hormone, making the plant more drought resistant.”

Upon graduating from U of T, Northey began working with the University’s Innovations and Partnerships Office (IPO) on taking his discovery further.

Dr. Julian Northey “Since the technology was at an early stage in its development, IPO and FAS structured a licensing deal that gives FAS the ability to develop and mature the technology,” says Peter Azmi, business development officer, life sciences at IPO.

“We’re confident our technology will translate well into crops but the goal right now is to do the genetic research,” says Northey.

Northey and his team will use two approaches. One is based on direct genetic modification, where scientists tweak the genetics of an organism. The other method is breeding or inducing mutations within the genome and then looking for plants that have the desired genetic characteristics.

And Northey is developing a business model that is as novel as the research. Fundamentally he wants to see control of the crops maintained in the farmer’s hands.

He explains that the current system for marketing GMO technology by multinationals and other seed companies is that before a growing season, seed is sold to farmers and they are legally restricted from saving and replanting the next generation of seed. “Aside from hybrid technology in, for example, corn, many people, including myself, are opposed to that business model because it abolishes a fundamental right of a farmer to save and replant his own seed.”

Northey prefers an open access model, which involves giving seed directly to farmers and allowing them to save and replant it. Farmers would pay for the use of the genetic technology based on a percentage of their gross yield, in essence a royalty-based structure. If you produce little, you pay little, a built in crop insurance.

“We feel this model is more sustainable and advantageous to the farmer,” says Northey. “Rather than maximizing profit to a corporation, it is maximizing value to the farmer.”

Northey takes his inspiration from a highly publicized incident in India where a multinational sold GMO cotton seed to farmers, who then experienced failed crops and increased indebtedness. Due to the high upfront cost of the GMO seeds, farmers borrowed money to purchase non-native varieties of cotton. After repeated years of failed crops, farmers were left without crop or seed stock thereby putting them into severe debt.

“Over 100,000 farmers in India have committed suicide, possibly exacerbated by this phenomenon. I want to develop a business model that is fair to the farmer.”

Professor Peter McCourt isn’t surprised that Northey has been able to combine science, business and social impact in his work. “Although Julian was trained in the genetic sciences in my laboratory, he also had an entrepreneurial spirit that let him take his experimental results and turn them into a product that may be extremely useful to society as a whole.”

U of T’s Vice President, Research Professor Paul Young feels “this is exactly the kind of role we like to see IPO playing. Our mandate is to assist U of T faculty members in transferring their knowledge and innovations to society. We are happy to help Julian as he and his team build Frontier Agri-Science Inc.”

A crop field.