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The next big disruption in agriculture

Sometimes a shock to the system can be a very good thing

In the business world, there’s a term to describe an event that completely changes an existing industry or market. It’s called a disruptor, and it changes how we think, work, and do business.

It can be argued that agriculture has gone through three major disruptions in the last century: the mechanization of farming; the arrival of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the genetics revolution which introduced new varieties, new breeding tools, and genetic engineering.

Innovations in each of these fields changed the way we farm, and each resulted in increased productivity and efficiency.

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Tom Button

We are now on the cusp of the fourth major disruptor: biology. More specifically, advances in microbiology are opening the eyes of farmers, scientists, those in ag industry, and even venture capitalists to the world beneath the soil surface. And what they are finding down there is truly amazing

In 2012, the American Academy of Microbiology produced a report entitled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World.” That report claimed that attention to microbiology could “increase the productivity of any crop, in any environment, in an economically viable and ecologically responsible manner.”

More than just a medium that anchors and feeds the crop, soils are teeming with life. Pick up a handful of healthy fertile soil and you will be holding billions of living organisms in your hand (see chart).

In fact, an acre of healthy soil can contain from a few hundred to thousands of pounds of microbial biomass.

And that isn’t all. According to Dr. Mathew Wallenstein, associate professor at Colorado State University, this handful of soil will have tens of thousands of different microbes. “Any soil will have as much microbial diversity as the diversity of life you would find in a tropical rain forest,” says Wallenstein.

Science reveals that these tiny organisms play a huge role in the growth of plants. Some convert organic matter into nutrient forms that a plant is able to utilize. Others help protect the plant from disease and pests, and some microbes even communicate with plants, enabling the plant to deal with environmental stresses and reduce the impact of drought, for example.

“Microbes are critical to sustainable agriculture,” Wallenstein says.

It is the discovery of such symbiotic and complementary relationships that is leading scientists to turn their focus from plant health to soil health. For example, instead of just feeding the plant, farmers are being encouraged to feed the microbes necessary for the conversion of chemical fertilizers into nutrients which the plant can take up.

photo: *Sylvia, Fuhrmann, Hartel and Zuberer, 1998.

Scientists are also trying to isolate microbes which enable a plant to resist pests, and then develop a process for growing these desired agricultural biologicals, packaging them, and devising a process which farmers can use to introduce these organisms into their cropping system.

In many ways, this idea is not new. We have known for decades about the value of nodulation for legumes to fix their own nitrogen. Farmers inoculate crops such as alfalfa, soybeans, peas, and lentils to ensure maximized N fixation.

But it is only recently that science has learned the impacts that so many other organisms have on plant growth. And, in spite of such advances in the study of soil microbes, scientists are still only able to grow about one per cent of known soil organisms in a lab setting.

New products

Biological products have been sold for many decades. Unfortunately, many of the early biologicals were marketed as miracle products that could do everything from increasing yields to preventing disease and pests to even improving soils. They were often unregulated, and there was no review of their efficacy, which led to a feeling among farmers that all biological products were “snake oil.”

Wallenstein points out that the biological products on the market today are targeted for their activity. Science defines how they work and farmers know what to expect when using the product. In the U.S., all biologicals are regulated at the state level for efficacy, content, and analysis.

Wallenstein says the addition of the right microbes will benefit any farm by enhancing productivity. Under optimal environmental and fertility conditions, the addition of a biological will enable a plant to produce more than its genetic potential suggests is possible.

Wallenstein even launched his own company a few years ago named Growcentia, which is marketing Mammoth P, a microbial product designed to increase the availability of phosphorus to plants.

Phil de Vries, meanwhile, is the soil and plant health adviser with Agriculture Solutions, a full service soil nutrient retailer in Elora, Ont. This company supplies farmers with a wide range of soil fertility products including biological fertilizers, soil conditioners, bio-stimulants, soil amendments, and seed treatments.

“Microbes are essential for both plant growth and healthy soil,” de Vries says.

For this reason, Agriculture Solutions has developed a suite of biological products to address fertility and pH problems in soils. They can feed native microbes already in the soil, and even introduce microbes which work symbiotically with plants to better utilize fertilizers and soil minerals.

Agricultural Solutions also sell biologicals designed to reduce stress in plants due to environmental conditions, nutritional deficiencies, and pests.

Likely the biggest question farmers would have about this kind of product list is how to tell if such products are needed on their farms in the first place. De Vries points out there are scientific tests which can assess the amount of soil life by measuring the amount of nitrogen mineralization or the amount of microbial respiration. However, these tests are expensive, so he suggests a quick and easy test that farmers can do themselves is to look for earthworms. Earthworms are at the top of the soil life food chain and the presence of large numbers of earthworms is an indicator of high microbe numbers.

While most of Agriculture Solutions’ sales are in southern Ontario, the company does have customers across Canada and the U.S., and de Vries notes they held a meeting this past winter in Regina for the first time with a very large turnout of prairie growers interested in soil biology and microbial products.

On the other hand

The research and development of new biological products will add a significant cost to farmers. Markets and Markets, a global market research organization, has estimated the agricultural microbial market was already worth US$2.17 billion in 2015. They estimate the market for microbials by 2021 should double to US$5.07 billion.

With growth like this, it is no wonder there has been a rush by ag industry to capture some of this market. In the January 6, 2016 issue of Scientific American, Thomas Schafer, vice-president of bio-ag research at Novozymes stated: “Companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF are working on microbes because they believe (the technology) has the potential to reduce chemistry and allow us to live more sustainably.”

In fact, Novozymes and Monsanto are actively co-operating in this area, with Novozymes focusing on finding, identifying and growing beneficial biologicals, while Monsanto concentrates on field testing these new products. In 2015, BioAg (as their joint venture is named) tested over 2,000 microbial coatings in over half a million plots in the U.S. Midwest. The five top biologicals increased corn yields more than four bushels per acre, and BioAg hopes to have a new microbial product available in the U.S. in 2017.

Success like this has led to predictions that biological products will be used on half the cropland in the U.S. by 2025.

Before you commit to using biologicals across your entire farm, however, here are a few things to consider. First, would the microbial product be registered by CFIA or PMRA? Fertility products require CFIA approval. If the product is listed as a pest control agent it has to be approved by PMRA.

Second, read the label and follow the directions carefully. Some biological products will require multiple applications to be effective. In an excellent paper, “Microbial Amendments and Microbe-friendly Additives,” author Tony Pattison, soil health team leader, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries wrote: “Each microbial agent has specific temperature, moisture and pH requirements for growth and colonisation of the soil. It is very difficult to generalise about the requirements that favour the proliferation of microbial agents. There are few studies that track the survival of microbial inoculants. However, one study investigated the addition of bacteria to the soil and found a tenfold reduction in the population of that bacteria in the soil after four days, 100,000-fold reduction after 50 days, and after 90 days the bacteria was undetectable in the soil.” (Esnard et al, 1998)

Pattison’s paper provides an excellent, easy-to-read overview of soil life and the effect microbes have on plant life. You can view it here as a PDF on the Queensland Government website.

Finally, whenever you use a biological product, leave an untreated control strip to see if the product is actually making a difference in your operation and to enable you to determine the return on your investment from that product.

Support soil microbes with good farming practices

Many farmers are likely hesitant to purchase new, relatively unproven biological products, especially given current low grain prices. However, all farmers can benefit from the research into soil biology without even purchasing novel soil amendments.

Dr. Bobbi Helgason, soil microbiologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, has studied the impact of farming on soil health and the microbial community. She says farmers who have adopted modern, sustainable farming practices benefit from increased microbe populations and healthier soils.

“No-till farming has had a huge impact on soil health,” Helgason says. “It has increased the organic matter in the soils, which means more food for microbes.”

Helgason also points out that farmers who use cover crops also increase food supply for microbes.

Also, today’s farmers have introduced a wider diversity of crops into their rotations which encourages diversity in the microbial population.

Helgason points out that all soils contain a huge number of diverse microbes, so the addition of a jug of a biological product is merely a drop in a very large bucket. It is just as important to feed the native microbes in your soils as adding a few more. The first step toward increasing soil health and the microbe populations is to learn more about the importance of microbes to the soil and plants. Then, follow a sustainable farming system that supports microbes.

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