May 27, 2020, by Lexi Earl

Understanding oil crop sustainability: An interview with Dr Thomas Alcock

Dr Thomas Alcock is a postdoctoral researcher with the Future Food Beacon, researching oil crops and sustainability. Prior to this role, he held a Future Food Doctoral award, in which he worked on identifying the genetic basis of magnesium uptake in Brassica crops, with the hope of developing more nutritious vegetables. Here, he shares with us what he is currently up to, and how he got involved with both research and the Future Food Beacon.

Tell me about your work. What do you study?

I’m currently investigating variation in environmental sustainability among major edible oil crops, focussing on palm, soy, rapeseed and sunflower. I am specifically comparing greenhouse gas emissions produced across the entire oil production life cycle, from cultivation of the various crops, all the way through to packaging of the refined oil. With long-running public debate surrounding the sustainability of certain crops such as oil palm, looking into life cycle emissions from edible oil certainly isn’t a new idea. The problem is that different research groups have previously used different ways of defining what makes up the “life cycle”, different ways of measuring inputs and other parameters, and different ways of estimating greenhouse gas emissions from these input data. This has meant that emissions estimates have varied widely, with little confidence in which crops or production practices are the most sustainable. To address this, my approach has been meta-analytical, meaning I am extracting pre-existing life cycle data from the entire collection of literature on this subject, normalising it, and drawing conclusions based on the whole pool of knowledge. By using this approach, the hope is that a consensus set of emissions data can be teased out, that most accurately reflects the reality of which crops, or production practices, are the most sustainable.

Thomas Alcock (left) with an oil palm smallholder farmer in Malaysia.

How did you become interested in this field? How did you become interested in science?

I’ve been working with Brassica crops, including rapeseed, for a few years now, having previously investigated the genetic control of nutrient accumulation in Brassica during my PhD and in the following year. Given that the major use of Brassicas in Europe is as a source of vegetable oil, this put me in a good position to look further into oil crops, albeit from a different angle. Like many others, I am also highly concerned about the effects that human activity, including agricultural expansion, is having on the environment. Hence, comparing greenhouse gas emissions from different oil crop production practices seemed a very worthy cause to me, that I was excited to get stuck into. What really got me interested in this project though, was the opportunity to engage with international researchers working in tropical agriculture. Palm and soy are typically grown in the tropics, the former largely in South-East Asia, and the latter in Brazil and surrounding countries (as well as the USA and other more temperate regions). I hope to develop my research more towards the tropics in coming years, as such regions have huge potential for crop production, despite having had limited investment compared to more temperate regions such as Europe and North America. Many tropical regions are also more commonly associated with poverty and social welfare issues. Increasing the production of nutritious foods in these regions then, can not only help to feed the ever-growing population, but also help to improve the financial stability and wellbeing of farmers in developing countries.

My interest in science goes further back, but I wouldn’t say ending up working in science was a given for me. Weirdly, biology was one of my least favourite subjects in secondary school, with physics being far more up my street back then! I ended up taking biology at A-level almost by accident due to timetabling clashes but quickly became immensely curious about life, where it all came from, and how vastly different solutions to the world’s challenges evolved. This led me to study biology further at undergraduate level, at which point I developed an interest in plants, culminating in completing my dissertation on the effects of fungicides on crop growth. The PhD came next and has taken me to where I am today.

Tell me a little about your research career?

I’m still in the early stages, having only completed my PhD at the end of 2018. This was with Prof. Martin Broadley and Dr Neil Graham in Plant Sciences at the University of Nottingham and involved identifying genes controlling nutrient uptake in Brassica crops. I was given a lot of flexibility as to how I went about this which was great, enabling me to try out lots of different techniques. The highlight was probably working with researchers in Slovenia and North-East Italy mapping the spatial distribution of elements in leaves using x-ray fluorescence and synchrotron radiation. This produced some awesome images (hopefully to be published soon!) and also allowed me to think more in terms of physics for a change. Playing around with different techniques and disciplines is definitely a great way to keep science exciting.

The synchrotron used in research

Immediately following my PhD, I did a bit of work for Dr Ute Voss characterising some auxin homeostasis mutants, and then was awarded the Future Food Beacon Doctoral Prize. This provided funding to continue work on the Brassica project for another year, which I used to look further into a hugely interesting mutant which accumulates twice as much leaf magnesium as wild-type plants. This mutant is GM-free, so has real potential for use in breeding programs to improve human and animal nutrition. Additional funding from the BBSRC Magnesium Network (MAG-NET) project allowed us to sequence this mutant, and work is still ongoing behind the scenes to pin down a controlling gene. After that, I was offered the oil crop sustainability post with the Future Food Beacon, which I have been working on since February.

What current projects are you working on?

As a post-doc, my focus is largely on the one major project on oil crop sustainability, as discussed above. I try to maintain involvement in other projects where possible though, for the sake of both curiosity and personal sanity! As mentioned above, the Brassica project looking into the magnesium accumulator is still ongoing. The sequencing data is currently with bioinformatician Michael Wilson, who is in the process of pulling out the most useful information alongside his other huge number of projects. I’m very grateful for his support! Other than that, I am involved in an ongoing collaboration with a group at Sao Paulo State University led by Prof. André Reis. This is based around their work on selenium uptake into plants. Selenium is an essential human nutrient but is lacking in many diets. The project aims to solve this by increasing edible crop tissue selenium concentrations through both fertilisation and breeding. A couple of the crops they are focussing on are cowpea and Brazil nuts. I took part in Brazil nut sampling on a farm in Amazon state in Brazil a couple of years ago and more recently I have been contributing to manuscript preparation for publication.

A Brazil nut nursery.

Why Future Food? What would you like to accomplish while you’re here? How does being part of Future Food help you achieve your goals?

I’ve been at Nottingham for a while now, so I have seen the Future Food Beacon develop from its early stages through to where it is today. I attended some of the earliest meetings describing what the Beacon is all about and was impressed by the scope of research being planned. As someone who is interested in the role of agriculture in alleviating poverty, I find it great to see projects such as those on cocoa in Colombia being funded. By looking into what specifically controls variation in chocolate flavour, the quality of smallholder farmers’ products can be improved, leading to better prices for the producers. It’s also great to see investment in infrastructure and new facilities, which all researchers across the University can benefit from. Whilst working with the Beacon, I’d like to engage with as many researchers as possible across disciplines, which is made very easy to do through regular meetings and briefing events which are held for people across the platform. The Beacon also has many international links which I have already started to benefit from, such as those in Malaysia, and I hope to build on this in future. This is and will continue to be a huge help for achieving my goals of engaging in high-quality international research with the aim of using agriculture to help alleviate poverty whilst promoting sustainability.

Can you explain your research to an ordinary person?

Global demand for edible oil has been increasing dramatically over the last few decades. Much of this has been met by increasing production of oil palm, which in some cases is associated with tropical deforestation to provide space for expansion. This is devastating for local biodiversity, as well as a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. Quite rightly, this has attracted a lot of negative media attention. However, oil palm yields around 5-10 times more oil than other major oil crops, so it is feasible that, had the increase in demand been met by other crops, even greater areas of land might have been degraded. As a perennial crop with a useful life of around 30 years, it is also possible that oil palm enables a greater build-up of soil organic carbon than its annual competitors. Things are further complicated by the fact that many farmers in South-East Asia rely on palm for their income, so there are welfare issues surrounding oil crop expansion as well. My research aims to make a science-led, critical comparison of data available on oil crop sustainability, in order to empirically identify which oil crop(s) and production practices are the most sustainable, and which are the most damaging to the environment. This will in turn hopefully lead to further work focussed on improving sustainability in the more damaging parts of the supply chain.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

Hopefully still to come! I’m not sure there’s a single greatest moment as of yet, though there have been a few good ones. Being successful in my first grant application for allocation of beam-time at the synchrotron in Italy was very exciting. Maybe less of a greatest career moment and more of a “greatest experience” was heading to Benin in West Africa to teach African researchers molecular biology skills as part of JR Biotek’s Reach and Teach Science in Africa program. It was brilliant sharing best practices with hugely hard-working and motivated researchers, who have sadly been limited in their research capacity by availability of lab resources and funding. I hope to engage with further capacity strengthening initiatives in future, they are immensely rewarding!

Tom teaching in Benin

Do you have any advice for young scientists?

Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone from time to time, you might be surprised at what you are capable of! I’d also advise working on confidence in general as a lot in research and the wider world seems to come down to it. A “fake it till you make it” approach works to start with, but don’t forget to develop the skills to match as you go too!

Does your research impact on ordinary people’s lives? How?

I try to keep relevance and applicability in mind with my research choices. I have hopes for my work on high magnesium Brassicas to eventually get into edible crop cultivars to improve human and animal nutrition. We have had some positive early discussions with a crop breeding company about this which is promising. My work on oil crop sustainability could also have huge consequences depending on the conclusions we draw when the full dataset is developed. This could develop into a much larger project on crop sustainability, examining the effects that changing various stages in production has on greenhouse gas emissions, which could end up influencing policy decisions. Long-term, impact is something that I would like to strive towards, and hopefully one day achieve!

Posted in Interviews