The John Innes Centre in Norwich has been given $10m (£6.4m) by the Gates Foundation to develop cereal crops.
The sum of one of the single biggest investments in controversial GM research in the UK.
Independent scientists at the centre are trying to engineer corn, wheat and rice plants that can extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, as peas and beans do, rather than relying on ammonia spread on fields.
If successful, the innovation could have a huge impact on maize farmers in Africa who cannot afford fertilisers, leading to greater food security in some of the world’s poorest regions.
Professor Giles Oldroyd from the John Innes Centre, told the BBC: “We believe if we can get nitron fixing cereals we can deliver much higher yields to farmers in Africa and allow them to grow enough food for themselves.”
A reduction in the use of agriculural fertilisers could also cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But opponents of GM crops say not enough is known about the long-term implications of genetic engineering. Critics say potential dangers include the inadvertent creation of “superweeds” – wild plants that become resistant to herbicides after cross-breeding with GM crops.
Kirtana Chandrasekaran, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said efforts to engineer nitrogen-fixing cereals had been going on for years with little success.
She said: “Putting this precious money into GM technology is not useful because there are far cheaper, simpler and more successful methods of dealing with the same problems in other areas of agricultural science, and these are where the money needs to go.”
A spokesman for the John Innes Centre told Channel 4 News: “Previous research has focussed on understanding how legumes (convert nitrogen), but this is the first piece of research to focus on whether it is possible for cereals to make their own fertiliser in the same way.”