How Tiny Microbes Have A Big Impact on Agriculture

Last month, a little-known agricultural technology group called Joyn Bio announced plans to open a new lab and field test site for the soil and plant microbes it has been engineering for the last year and a half.

Most if not all of the biggest names in agribusiness – including DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer – have partnered, merged with, or bought other companies specializing in this kind of microbial science in the last five years. In fact, Joyn Bio is one such joint venture, with parent companies Bayer CropScience and Gingko Bioworks.

Major fertilizer companies are ramping up research and development into the possible application of microbes in agriculture in a rush to meet demand from the organic farming sector. Once a small, niche industry, the market for organically and ethically sourced food products has grown to mass-production levels over the last decade. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have been shown over time to have unintended negative consequences for the environment and human health, including:

  • Degraded nutrient levels in soil
  • Reduced biodiversity
  • Polluting local water supplies

Weeds, bacteria, and plant-eating insects can also become resistant to herbicides and pesticides, leaving crops more vulnerable to the diseases and pests those chemicals are meant to prevent.

As far back as the 1800’s, American farmers have known that certain microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi can be helpful to plant and crop growth, while of course others are harmful. Some of these beneficial bacteria aid in plant growth by increasing the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients like nitrogen. Other microbes might protect plants from disease.

But the era of chemical innovation gave horticulturalists the effective and easy-to-use spray-on fertilizers, weed-killers, and pesticides that fill the shelves of gardening stores and farming supply distributors today. Now, with the World Health Organization and European Union declaring one of the most common ingredients in those products a potential carcinogen and billion-dollar lawsuits grabbing national headlines every few weeks, the pressure is on for agribusiness to rediscover its microbial roots, so to speak.

Lucky for them, the research so far indicates that biotech using microbes and their metabolites can both control pests and enhance nutrient uptake. Once developed for commercial use, biologicals have “the potential to increase crop growth and vigour, nutrient use efficiency, biotic/abiotic stress tolerance and disease resistance” within farming systems.

The next step, say researchers, is to make sure the products will work outside of a petri dish – hence the reason companies like Joyn Bio are buying up acres of farmland in California. If they prove to be as effective in field conditions as they are in the laboratory, this new wave of biologicals might make traditional synthetic fertilizers and other farming chemicals completely obsolete.

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