Soil is one thing that we hear very little about, despite the fact that it will have a tremendous bearing on the future of our species.
While modern agriculture has tended to view soil as little more than a substrate to physically support the plants and hold whatever chemicals are added to make them grow, it’s become clear that this is not a sustainable model. It also belies how little we know about the tremendous diversity of microbial life that lives in our soil, a diversity that has mostly been ignored despite that fact that it could very well hold the key to fertility. That is beginning to change.
According to Nathan Cude, a microbiologist at Novozymes, a spoonful of soil contains about 50 billion microbes, comprising up to 10,000 different species. That’s more than the number of people who have ever lived on Earth. Cude is assigned to the BioAg Alliance, a joint venture between Novozymes and Monsanto, which seeks to understand the impact that soil microbes have on agricultural productivity, and to leverage that understanding to produce seeds with microbial coating that will make them more productive.
The two companies each bring unique skills and knowledge to the endeavor. Novozymes brings an established product portfolio as well as strengths in microbial discovery, application development and fermentation. Monsanto brings a highly-developed seeds and traits discovery capability, a global field-testing network, regulatory expertise, and an extensive commercial footprint.
Together, they planted 500,000 test plots across the U.S. this past fall, using over 2,000 microbial coatings. It is hoped that the use of these coatings could improve yields while reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides.
The idea isn’t totally new. Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck discovered in 1888 that the roots of leguminous plants were inhabited by a bacterium called rhizobium, which helped to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into food for the plants. Farmers and gardeners have been using it ever since.
TriplePundit spoke with Novozymes CEO Peder Holk Nielsen this fall about the company’s participation in COP21. At that time, we also briefly discussed this project. This is what Nielsen had to say about the motivation behind it:
“The science is still pretty young. We haven’t really hit it hard yet. But what we’re going to do is to start from the top. If you look at the FAO reports, farmers will have to produce about 70 percent more food in 2050 compared to 2013. Some of that comes from the increase in population — we can expect to be about 9.5 billion by 2050 — but also by virtue of the increased wealth in many of the emerging markets that will adopt some of our bad habits. That represents a pull for about 70 percent more food. That’s a number that gets people’s attention.
“People want to know: How’s that going to happen? … I’m pretty sure farmers are going to be able to do it, but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to do it sustainably. You can run farmland down, you can deplete your soil totally, but after 20 to 25 years, the bills start to show up.
“So, we start with the 70 percent, and we work with Monsanto who tells us that the lower threshold for impact is 3 percent. If it’s less than that, farmers won’t be interested. A good number to work with, at least hypothetically, is a 5 to 6 percent yield increase. … If you can get that on some of your major row crops on your first-go technology, there will probably be follow-ups and maybe you can double that. And maybe you can cut out 20 percent of that 70 percent by just having better use of the food and cutting out waste in the system. Then, you only need about 10 efforts like this one to make that 70 percent in a sustainable way. That’s kind of the game we’re in here.”
Indeed, it will be a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity.
Says Rob Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, “What we are really excited about is this fascinating, nearly invisible factor that plays a huge role in the life of plants — microbes.”
We will need to get a lot smarter than we are now if we are going to make this happen while becoming more sustainable at the same time. Nielsen spoke of the opportunity in Africa, where only 10 percent of suitable farmland is being worked today due to issues pertaining to land rights, infrastructure, distribution, etc.
“And on the one-tenth,” said Nielsen, “you only get about a one-tenth of what the yield could be. So, they are only getting 1 percent of what they could do, without cutting down any rainforests or anything. It’s not an easy problem, but given a couple of decades, it will get solved.”
It will be interesting to see how effective this new direction will be, and whether it will raise the same kind of concerns that have been raised by other biotech efforts to boost productivity on the farm.
Image courtesy of BioAg Alliance