Dr. Richard Lally: Crop science and the next Green Revolution
Just as his innovative approach to crop science saved billions of lives, agriculture now stands poised to feed the rising population. What technology will drive the new era? Dr. Richard Lally joins us to discuss the most promising research from the field.
The following is an edited transcript of Kara Keeton’s interview with Dr. Richard Lally, research scientist with Alltech. Click below to hear the full audio.
Kara: Alltech research scientist Richard Lally is with me today to discuss new opportunities in the crop science field. Thank you for joining me today.
Richard: No problem — a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kara: Globally, consumers are demanding more and more plant-based foods and everyday items. How is this demand from consumers impacting Alltech’s crop research?
Richard: Yeah, it’s a really interesting trend that we’re seeing now in the food industry. The consumer appears to be demanding more and more plant-based products. There are a few different reasons for this. The people are more conscious now about where their food is coming from. They’re demanding more sustainability. They’re demanding that the foods that they’re eating will have a better nutritional impact to them personally. There are also a few companies who are including more plant-based-type of promises on their labels to give a healthier, more natural feel to various types of products.
I think, from that standpoint, there’s a real opportunity in research for us to definitely help people produce better food, more nutritious food, and also help them produce in a much more sustainable way so every industrial activity out there has some kind of an environmental impact. Really, what we aim to do and strive to do is try and help alleviate and limit some of those environmental impacts of agriculture. That’s really what we’re trying to do with our Alltech Crop Science research.
Kara: Along with traditional crop science research in the lab, I know technology is playing a bigger and bigger role every day with research and out in the field. How can technology provide farmers avenues to help meet these demands for more plant-based products?
Richard: It’s such a fascinating, exciting time, at the moment. If you think back to Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution back in the late ’30s and early ’40s, that was really a transitional moment for agriculture and, particularly, in crop agriculture. We’ve seen a massive boom in yield, and it was really the ability to see the opportunity to pull all the technologies and the science that was there together in order to help benefit the output for crop production.
We are currently now in a period where we have some of the most exciting scientific breakthroughs that are happening. We have some of the most exciting technologies available to us now that we can use in plant breeding, et cetera.
Really, it’s when we pull all of these technologies together and we figure out how to use them in a very strategic way and bring them to the farm, implement them on the farm — we’re really going to see the acceleration of what we can merely call the second Green Revolution. There’s an array of technologies now available to us that the farmers are currently using. They are currently generating data on the farm, and it’s when we start figuring out how to decipher all of that information that we can start making real leaps and help feed the world in a very sustainable way.
Kara: Do you have research out in the field right now, on farms or at Alltech, that can talk a little bit more about how that technology plays out day to day, both in analyzing the data as well as the production on the farm?
Richard: Yes. Our focus as researchers in Crop Science is, we really tap into looking at the overall plant health and what exactly we can do to help benefit that. We work from every aspect of the plant or plant production, from the soil to the roots to the stem to the leaves, all the way up to the fruits and the grains. Alltech Crop Science has been around now for 25 years, and we have years and years of wonderful results from the field, so what we’re really trying to do now is understand some of the mechanisms behind these programs that we’re using with our applications and our materials.
A really, really neat technology that we can use is RNA sequencing, more of would be referred to as the “-omic”-based technologies. These are technologies that can give us a lot of information about the cellular metabolism of a plant, and we can decipher that by looking at things like RNA, looking at protein interactions, looking at the mineral status, looking at the metabolites of plants. By understanding that and understanding where our applications have a role within those technologies — understanding how our applications are impacting some of those subcellular molecular processes — we can help basically guide strategies and guide programs for growers to help them produce more foods and help them protect their crops from stresses, be they biotic or abiotic stresses.
Kara: What are some of the mechanisms in Crop Science that are not only helping growers — that you’re using out in the field right now to produce a better product — but that are also helping the growers see a profit on that bottom line?
Richard: Again, we work with growers. We work with our partners who help growers, and we try and develop a strategy for a grower. We offer a program and, again, we work with the soil. We work with the plant health. Really, what we’re looking at doing — are there any mechanisms within the plant that the plant can naturally call on to help it boost its growth on its own? For example, we could be looking at a defense mechanism. Is there anything we can do to help upregulate some of those benefits in the plant, which can then lead to a reduction in the need for things like the harsh or harder chemistries that would be generally overused in some systems? From a soil health angle, we might look at how we can benefit the soil by using some of our applications. Is there anything we can do to stimulate some of the microbial communities around the roots? This will help us boost better root growth, which will improve the overall health of the plant.
Kara: Now, Richard, I know that, in 2016, you won the Alltech Young Scientist Graduate Award. What was that experience like for you? How did that impact your research that you’re doing today and inspire you to continue down this road of researching crop production?
Richard: Yes. That was a really, really special moment for me in my life. I was working with some soil microorganisms at the time I submitted. I was advised by my professor at the time to submit a paper, and lo and behold, I ended up winning the competition. I think the real benefit to that experience was experiencing ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for the industry to come together and talk in a very down-to-earth way about the challenges in the industry — and we see, year after year, that there’s constantly action, and it comes from this meeting that is having a huge impact in the industry.
I think the other thing, really — having worked with Alltech now for a number of years — it’s actually using that technology that we work with and bringing it to a commercial setting. When I was a researcher doing my graduate program, I didn’t really see that opportunity, and it’s because I’m a scientist — and maybe I’m not as entrepreneurial as I should be — but the wonderful thing about Alltech was, they identify these mechanisms. They’ve identified these benefits from these fermentation applications, and they bring them out to the field, and they provide them for growers to actually have a real impact in the industry. So that, to me, was probably the most exciting part.
Kara: I think it’s always exciting when you see something you imagine or you see on paper put into action, and that’s what you’re saying you see on these farm trials and with farmers.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a pleasure working with the Alltech Crop Science products because, when I start introducing them into experiments, you get these really strong responses, so there are mechanisms that have existed and that we’ve loosely known about for years and years and years, but now, we’ve really taken out the magnifying glass and are having a look at what’s happening. So, it’s really interesting and fascinating to work with these applications for the better good of agriculture. It’s really exciting to be a scientist working in this area.
Kara: As a scientist in this area, I know that you have seen many things develop, since you’ve been working in this field the past several years, but I’m sure that you have visions of what will come down the road as you continue your research. Where you do hope to see crop sciences in five or ten years? Is there anything on the horizon that is really exciting to you or you see potential for?
Richard: Well, I think crop science — the industry and the developments that are happening — I think we’re going to see crazy changes over the next decade from the digital technology that’s available on the farm. I was recently on an almond grove, and there were people measuring how trees are shrinking and expanding in response to water stress and, then, guiding water or strategies based on these technologies, which were leading to a reduction in water use, et cetera. There are other technologies now, like CRISPR; it’s being used broadly. Actually, the European Union have blocked some of the regulations around CRISPR at the moment, but other places are embracing it — like Russia have announced that they’re going to be investing in it. North America: We see it’s allowed to be used here as well. So, I think, using the technologies that are there, we’re going to see some really, really interesting breakthroughs.
More of what I’m working with, the gene expression and other things: We have worked with Alltech on nutrigenomics, which is just the study of the gene expression. I think, using these technologies and really starting to understand the biochemistry behind some of the pathways that we’re looking at, that we’re really going to have a major impact. We’re going to be able to produce healthier fruits, vegetables. We’re going to be much more sustainable in our production through nutrient use, the reduction of pesticides, things like that. I think the future looks really bright, in my eyes.
Kara: It sounds like there’s a lot of new opportunities out there for you in the future, and I wish you luck in your research.
Richard: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me today.
Kara: Thanks for coming in. That was Alltech research scientist Dr. Richard Lally.