What Role Do Microbes Play in Tackling Global Food Security?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of TriplePundit’s ongoing coverage of SXSW Eco 2015. You can read all of our coverage here.

microbes You’ve probably heard the stat by now, estimating we will have a global population of 9 billion to feed by 2050. More precisely, it is the farmers who grow our food who will have most of the onus of this monumental task placed upon them. It presents what some argue is one of the most pressing questions of our time: How will we feed our rapidly expanding global population, while not contributing to climate change in the process?

This past week at SXSW Eco, a panel of experts from business, academia and the farming community took on this question, asserting that we’ve got part of the answer right under our feet: microbes.

Microbes shack up in our soil and on the leaves and roots of plants, benefiting them in numerous ways. They not only solubilize and lock in nutrients from the soil, but they also scare away pests and prime plants to be more resilient to environmental strains like drought, extreme temperatures or pollution. And given the continued loss of global arable, fertile land to farm, it’s noteworthy that microbes are beneficial in restoring marginalized, depleted lands where the environment is not ideal for plants. Microbes make soil healthier the way good bacteria aids the human body’s digestive, immune and other critical systems.

Thomas Schäfer, vice president of bio-ag and industrial microbiology at Novozymes, was joined by Gwyn Beattie, Robert Earle Buchanan Distinguished Professor of bacteriology at Iowa State University, and DiMare Fresh grower William (Skeeter) Bethea, to share how new technological improvements are allowing scientists to recognize how microbes help farmers reduce the need for synthetic inputs and increase crop yield.

“With molecular techniques, we can see communities of microbes that were previously unapproachable,” Beattie said last week.

In other words, microbes are finally ready for their close up.

Big Ag catches on

What used to be a niche market is now attracting interest from a broader audience. The likes of BASF, Bayer, Chr. Hansen, Monsanto, Novozymes, Syngenta and several startup companies have taken notice and are putting billions behind researching microbes, with the aim to bring more microbial products to market.

It’s appealing for a few reasons. Not only can this technology be applied to both organic and conventional agriculture, but Schäfer asserted that microbial products can also get to market several years faster and at a lower cost than new chemical products, because there are less regulatory hoops to jump through.

So, why is industrial agriculture just starting to recognize the importance of these microbes? It seems to be less about not recognizing their benefits, and more that we are beginning to remember our agricultural roots. Farmers have long implemented techniques such as the use of compost or compost teas, field rotation, integrated pest management, and cover crops to manage and improve the living health of their soil. New microbial technologies for use in industrial agriculture today would just be building on this “tradition of innoculants,” Beattie explained.

Not the be-all, end-all

None of the panelists suggested that microbes will be the “silver bullet” to solving our global food security woes. In fact, the research still has a long way to go in identifying which species are the most beneficial to plants. This is no easy task, considering there can be some 10,000 different species of microbes in just one tiny gram of soil.

As Schäfer illuminated: “Microbes are not created equal. Finding the ones that can be made into a product is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” That’s why Novozymes, a Denmark-based producer of industrial enzymes and microorganisms, is currently working with the BioAg Alliance to test over 2,000 microbes directly in the field in 500,000 small plots. These tests will study the robustness of microbes to determine which ones help improve plant health and drive better yields.

The panel made clear that microbial products coming to market does not mean an end to the use of chemical inputs in industrial agriculture, at least not any time soon. To put this into perspective, the BioAg Alliance states that in 2014, the market for traditional fertilizers and pesticides was approximately $240 billion, while the market for microbials was a mere $1.8 billion.

“It would be naive to think if we make these microbial products that there will be no chemistry. It’s about farmers integrating this,” Schäfer said.

But with finite resources like phosphorus on the planet for ag inputs, Bethea underscored that farmers need to learn how to use these inputs as efficiently as possible, become less dependent upon them and incorporate other solutions like microbes.

Seeding a partnership

While there are a few options for applied microbe use, including sprays for fruits and vegetables, drip irrigation and putting the microbes on the seeds themselves, Schäfer considers this last option the most efficient, especially for the world’s corn, soy, wheat and rice farmers, because “they can buy the seed with all the benefits already on it.”

Novozymes entered into a partnership with Monsanto last year to explore this microbe-on-the-seed concept, forming the BioAg Alliance. Monsanto will manage the field testing, registration and commercialization of products, while Novozymes will handle manufacturing and supplying microbial solutions to Monsanto.

One audience member posed the question, “Should we be worried that companies like Monsanto, whose products contribute to less healthy soil, is getting involved in microbes?” Beattie emphasized that, regardless of where people stand on the company, “Monsanto has access to resources that academia doesn’t have,” noting its ability to research thousands of microbes on a large scale, with the potential for more stability across test sites.

Schäfer opined that the huge commitment in research dollars from Monsanto on microbes should speak for itself. (Monsanto paid Novozymes an upfront payment of $300 million to pursue research and product development.) “You don’t do this as a company if you aren’t really committed because it creates expectations. And if those expectations aren’t met, there will be implications with shareholders,” he stressed. That said, Schäfer acknowledged in a one-on-one interview that “Monsanto’s biggest mistake has been miscommunication.”

While controversy will no doubt continue to surround discussions of how to best approach sustainable agriculture as it relates to global food security and what players should be involved, it’s clear that microbial technology is now an integral part of that conversation.

Image credit: Macrovector/Shutterstock.com

Lesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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