Meet the researcher adapting 'unfashionable crops’ to grow in extreme conditions

Dr Peter Emmrich with grass pea

Dr Peter Emmrich is studying how an ancient 'orphan crop' called grass pea could provide sustainable nourishment - Credit: Peter Emmrich

Dr Peter Emmrich is a John Innes Foundation Fellow at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development at Norwich Research Park. Find out how his work on the grass pea aims to provide more resilient crops that will grow in drought and flooding conditions.  

Dr Peter Emmrich in Nairobi, Kenya

Dr Peter Emmrich spent three years working at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya - Credit: Peter Emmrich

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here

What is the big issue that you are looking to help solve?  

At the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development, my colleagues and I combine approaches from both natural and social sciences to help scientists and local communities develop agricultural practices and improve nutrition for a growing world population. As the climate changes, we’re losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, so people around the world need to find ways to feed themselves while also conserving the environment.  

At the institute, we work across many different disciplines to study how breeding, agricultural practices, technology and policies can make people's livelihoods more resilient and sustainable. That means that we have to look at agricultural issues through the lens of bioscience, social science and climate science. 

What is the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development? 

The institute was set up at the beginning of 2021 to bring together researchers working in different areas of science from the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Earlham Institute, Quadram Institute, The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and the UEA Department for International Development. Norwich is world-leading for bioscience, international development and climate research. We believe that there's huge value in researchers from these different disciplines working together towards a common goal. 

Why is your work on the grass pea important for global food security? 

Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus) is a legume and an ancient ‘orphan crop’ that is very useful because it is high in protein and fibre and is highly tolerant to both drought and flooding. As a consequence of climate change, droughts and flooding are going to become more common and that can cause crop failures. Developing more resilient crop species is one way to address that. Eating more legumes reduces our need for artificial fertiliser and can help to reduce richer countries' consumption of meat.

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Grass pea hasn’t received much attention from the research community because it produces a potentially dangerous natural toxin. If the local diet is heavily reliant on grass pea due to the scarcity of food, this can paralyse the legs of people consuming it.  

I’m trying to understand how the plant makes this toxin so that we can breed varieties without it. Both conventional plant breeding and gene editing can help us to understand how we can improve these crops and support the communities that grow them. But crop science alone can only do so much, so we are studying how farmers and consumers in Ethiopia cultivate and eat grass pea and what improvements to the crop they want to see. We don't want to spend a decade developing a new variety of grass pea only to find out it isn't what people want. 

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park

Norwich Research Park is a fantastic place with some of the best plant science, climate science and international development expertise in the world. There is such a breadth of knowledge on the Park and you can collaborate with experts with completely different backgrounds and approaches to issues of sustainable development. 

As a plant scientist, this means I am exposed to new methods that help me study and engage with the human side of agriculture and food systems, as well as the broader picture of how agriculture affects and is affected by climate stress. It's really exciting working here. 

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career? 

I've always been interested in understanding things, but I was drawn to plant science because of just how much we can do with plants. They affect every person on the planet, so understanding plants is central to the largest problems that we face. From biodiversity loss and climate change to poverty and malnutrition, plants have to be part of the solution. Developing better crops is a way for me to use my natural interest in science to help address those issues. 

Dr Peter Emmrich is a John Innes Foundation Fellow at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development

Dr Peter Emmrich is a John Innes Foundation Fellow at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development at Norwich Research Park - Credit: Peter Emmrich

How did you end up in Norwich? 

I was born in Germany and came to the UK to do my degree in Plant Sciences and Master's in Systems Biology at Cambridge University. Then I came to the John Innes Centre for my PhD and postdoc, working on grass pea. From 2017, I spent three years working in Nairobi, Kenya before joining the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development in January 2021. 

What do you get up to when you're not working? 

My partner and I have a four-month-old baby, so he takes up most of my time! I also really enjoy playing and designing board games. My favourite is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which I've written a few cases for.  

Dr Peter Emmrich is a John Innes Foundation Fellow at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development at Norwich Research Park. You can follow the institute on Twitter @theNISD