In a humid faux-tropical haven set in a Toronto basement and lit with near-blinding artificial sunlight, Herbert Kronzucker has begun to save the world.
As a starting point, he chose the three billion people - just under half the globe's current population - who subsist mainly on rice. The logic of doing so occurred to him while he was up to his knees in a swampy Philippine rice field more than a decade ago, on a side-trip during a tree biology project.
"I will never forget that morning, the sun rising over these rice paddies, and I realized for the first time, 'These oceans of green ... that's where the world's food comes from.' I had never realized that," the 43-year-old researcher said. "I grew up in Europe and then came to North America. You go to Loblaws when you're hungry, or McDonald's and there is always something there."
That dawn walk has led Dr. Kronzucker to the holy grail of rice: the breeding of super grains designed to resist death by salt, which ravages crops via fertilized soil and water. The ultimate result promises more than a silver bullet for farmers struggling to grow bigger crops in a degrading environment: It could provide billions of people with the golden ticket to surviving a global food crisis that is well under way.
From a continent that struggles more directly with obesity than starvation, the immense pressures on the world food system, which appear geographically confined, can seem impossible to comprehend. But global population growth is currently outpacing agricultural production by a measure of 3 to 1, according to Dr. Kronzucker. Our bread basket will never catch up: the Earth's arable land is already maxed out.
"It has never been this dire. And yet the human population keeps exploding," he said. "I can walk around and ask people to use condoms and have fewer children. That's very important."
Instead, the University of Toronto plant biologist, who is affiliated with the renowned Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, decided to make his mark in the lab.
Rice is one of just four grains that form the foundation of the global food chain. While all grains are under stress from drought and salinity - the buildup of salt in soil and water - rice is under the most pressure because it is grown in irrigated fields where the salt problem, which is exacerbated by fertilization, is serious.
"Rice uses a heck of a lot of water," Dr. Kronzucker said. "It needs a lot of pesticides, a lot of fertilizers to give you that [big]yield in the end."
The problem is pressing across the chief rice-growing and consuming arc of southern and Southeast Asia, from India to China by way of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Rice science, which took off in 1960, led to yield increases credited with saving more than 800 million lives in Asia. Now, Dr. Kronzucker, who is the Canada Research Chair in Metabolic Bioengineering of Crop Plants, is hoping a new marriage of sophisticated scientific techniques will help him uncover the genetic makeup that the rice of the future will need.
The ongoing study that has garnered him international rice fame is one that probes the inner plumbing of rice plants down to the genome, which he describes as more sophisticated than that of humans. Using radio isotopes that rice roots essentially suck up, Dr. Kronzucker and his team have discovered how to monitor precisely where salt travels into the plant and watch how it cuts its murderous path, causing the plant to panic, bleeding fatal amounts of water and potassium (a critical survival nutrient).
The isotopes allow study of the rice plants while they're still living, not "all cut up" as traditional science dictates, Dr. Kronzucker said, adding: "They show us things we never could have imagined."
That includes a clearer-than-ever-before window into the rice genome, which works like a computer operating system that runs programs in response to the presence of various toxic conditions, including salt influxes. In the lab, Dr. Kronzucker's team is learning how to manipulate those "programs" with methods that can be reproduced with "precision agriculture" in the field.
They've also set a pattern of debunking the findings of some of the world's leading rice experts. Current theories hold that porous root cells are culpable for salt intake, but the Toronto team learned that the problem lies elsewhere.
For Dr. Kronzucker, the notoriety his discoveries bring is less exciting than the potential they hold. His work could erase lingering doubts about the fundamental aspects of rice's relationship with salt, which must be resolved before genomes are actually altered to avoid disaster when the re-engineered seeds finally hit the field.
When they do - and Dr. Kronzucker is not certain how far off that could be - rice farmers will be able to get them without paying unreasonable costs. On principle, Dr. Kronzucker wants to keep his pioneering work in the non-profit realm.
"Food is as fundamental as health to human rights," he said. "It will be made available to all of the world's farmers."