Dr Alexander Johnson’s interest in plants as a food source began in childhood when he would work with his mother in their garden. The experience fed his curiosity about crops and would result in his lifelong goal to improve upon the nutritional value of staple food.
Today, Johnson is a senior lecturer in the School of BioSciences. Since 2007 he has devoted his research to understanding and improving the nutritional value of white rice, also known as polished grain. It is the main calorie source for half the world’s population but contains very little iron and other essential micronutrients such as zinc and pro-vitamin A. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least two billion people suffer from iron deficiency, mostly in developing nations. This can manifest as impaired cognitive development in children and depressed immune function in women. To combat micronutrient hunger, Johnson and his team of international researchers have developed varieties of biofortified rice with naturally high amounts of iron in the grain. The breakthrough has won him the Excellence in Engagement – Research Award.
Johnson is now involved in building the infrastructure to produce the rice in Bangladesh. He is targeting areas with large populations that can reap the benefits of his research, such as Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America.
For Johnson, engagement with stakeholders like governments and the citizenry is a crucial aspect of his research, and he is grateful to the University for recognising his work.
“[The award] means a lot. It means that the University realises we are making a real world impact. It also spotlights hidden hunger and the University recognises that hidden hunger is a problem we need to tackle,” he says.
If we don’t engage we are isolated. We can make fantastic discoveries in the laboratory but if we don’t engage with people outside, we can’t translate it into a product. Dr. Alexander Johnson
“It is also important to get everyone on board. Creating this biofortified food is important but it can’t only be scientists that support this. We also need to get populations on board. We have to talk to them and work with them.”