What keeps you feeling optimistic?
Last year the first of these manipulations gave us a 20 per cent boost in productivity. Breeders are usually happy if they can get 1 per cent. So that really showed that we were onto something. This year, two of my colleagues working on different ways of improving photosynthesis had major successes in their field trials.
Have you ever had moments when you felt like giving up?
I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve felt like giving up. For a long time, there was a very strong belief that the process of photosynthesis couldn’t be improved in crops because evolution couldn’t possibly have left a free lunch on the table.
What’s your response to people who say your project won’t work?
My response is that we now have very strong evidence from replicated field trials that it is working.
If you were able to rent out a billboard in Times Square, what would you write on it?
‘Don’t be complacent about our global food supply – it’s at serious risk.’
What will your field of research look like in 2050?
I think the genetic tools that have been developed over the last 20 to 30 years will be being deployed at scale. So, we’ll have smart crops able to deal with different environments, and be far more sustainable. That’s what the technology is going to allow us. Whether we accept that technology is going to be another issue.
ABOVE: Engineered seedlings are transplanted into a field as part of The RIPE Project
LEFT: A stoma on a tobacco leaf. These tiny pores regulate the exchange of gases between the atmosphere and a leaf’s interior. When it’s dark or during times of drought, they close up so the plants don’t lose water