Biotechnologists have transformed the sugar beet plant so that it has a rounded bottom rather than a conical one. Each conically-shaped plant drags clods of earth with it when it is plucked from the ground, causing serious soil erosion. The new one sits like a globule, high out of the ground from where it can be removed cleanly.
The work was done by researchers at the Norman Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research at De Montfort University, an international centre with a difference. De Montfort has set up the institute by asking leading scientists in certain countries around the world to join it in a "virtual" way. The scientists stay put and work on problems pressing in their own countries.
The sugar beet breakthrough happened by comparing the sugar content of different beet plants. Sugar beet, which has the undesirable conical shape, contains lots of sugar and is made up of many narrow rings to accumulate it. But table beet has wide rings and accumulates sugar less well. The solution: genetically engineer the table beet, which is the right shape, so it will accumulate more sucrose.
Malcolm Elliott, director of the institute, said the crucial moment in the work happened at a board meeting of Kleinwanzlebener Saatzucht AG, a German company and collaborator, when he asked for a beet bulb to help him argue his case. "I sat with all these executives and received a silver tray and a silver knife." On the tray was a bulb of sugar beet. "I cut the sugar beet in half and showed that it had the ring structure."
The research made use of the institute's structure, represented on bits of paper with criss-crossing diagrams demonstrating the involvement of the Czech, Chinese and Bulgarian centres which are now legally bound to De Montfort. Professor Elliott has head-hunted down the scientists at these centres, looking for those with the best reputations, choosing countries with big agricultural problems he thinks they can help to solve.
Each country is funded to do research on crops relevant to them. They also have the kudos of being associated with a British University that is now winning a lot of top plant science grants.
One advantage for De Montfort is that it saves a lot of money by not accommodating the scientists in Leicester - instead it pays them local salaries, upgrades their equipment and pays for consumables. All the institutes gain because they have a permanent framework from which they can exploit the many international grants available.
"People often put together a group cynically. We can always say we need each other scientifically. But there really is an emotional commitment here."
De Montfort has contracts with the Bulgarian Academy of Agriculture and the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The centre's philosophy is to help solve the key environmental problems of agriculture: stop first world countries exhausting the soil by over-farming it and polluting it with fertilisers; help developing countries, which cannot afford the fertilisers, to produce more food and cut down the 15 million deaths from starvation each year.
The most direct way to cut starvation would be to improve yields of rice, which is the staple food in three-fifths of the world. Work with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, among others, has led to a breakthrough in rice production.