Monsanto Going Green: Using Bacteria and Fungi to Increase Crop Yields and Lower Inputs

BioAg Alliance, they are calling it, a venture to use microbes and fungi to enhance crop growth and yield, help with pest resistance, and reduce inputs like water. Monsanto paid Novozymes $300 million to partner in this “game changing” venture. Monsanto will do marketing and field testing. Novozymes will do the manufacturing.

Today, the headlines are everywhere about this announcement, but the articles all say the same basic, vague things. Here at B.P.A. let’s learn more.

First of all, this will rock the world of agribusiness stereotypes. People conjure up their own images of the company Monsanto, that goes without saying. Certainly, my own impression of the Danish company Novozymes is not so green, as I’ve seen the massive building which abuts the Missouri River in Blair, Nebraska, that turns out the enzymes used for ethanol production and sits next to Cargill’s massive corn processing plant, and I know what the park-like setting looked like before this industrial complex was there. And much of what they do and why they located in Eastern Nebraska was to provide enzymes for the corn ethanol process.

My initial reaction to this announcement is that this venture has enormous potential, is, as they are saying, a game changer, and, it is also very green. I suspect, also, that Monsanto doesn’t want to be left out of a future where the cost-competitive advantages of more sustainable production methods using fewer expensive inputs could take off. Using biologicals to enhance yields instead of chemicals has the potential to be a game changer that could help lower the input costs for farmers. Let’s hope.

This whole subject is HOT, HOT, HOT. It received little fanfare at the time, but earlier this year, the American Academy of Microbiology came out with a report, “HOW MICROBES CAN HELP FEED THE WORLD, 2013.” According to the report summary, improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions has the potential to increase crop productivity by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%, within 20 years. The ASM PDF report reads like a confirmation of Gaia hypothesis.

Here are a few quotes from the Monsanto and Novozymes spokespersons:

“…(this) represents the next layer of opportunity for growers to drive yield and productivity while helping the preservation of finite natural resources in our precious planet,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer said.

Novozymes CEO, Peder Holk Nielsen, said that to meet world demand, farmers must produce more food in the next 50 years than they have in the last 10,000 years while using the planet’s land, water and other resources wisely. Nielsen also said that harnessing the beneficial effects of microorganisms has “an untapped potential for biological solutions for agriculture. These products do work. … I believe we are rewriting agricultural history.”

While some of the articles covering this story today are saying this will be used for vegetable and fruit crops, the Novozymes website “BioAg Alliance” page shows photos of corn, soybean, and wheat fields.

The following is a direct excerpt from Novozymes website:

WHAT ARE AGRICULTURAL BIOLOGICALS?
Agricultural biologicals is an umbrella term for microbials, plant extracts, beneficial insects and other organic material used by farmers to increase crop health and productivity.

Microbial-based products are derived from naturally-occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. They are normally applied to seeds before planting, in-furrow or sprayed on crops, and they protect crops from pests and diseases and enhance plant productivity and fertility. With faster development cycles compared to other agricultural innovations, as well as broad geographic and crop applicability, microbial solutions offer tremendous potential to deliver sustainable, cost-effective solutions that can increase yield using less input.

Agricultural biologicals today represent roughly $2.3 billion in annual sales and have for the last several years posted double-digit percent revenue growth annually.

According to Nielsen, both companies already have products on the market and have been doing work on biologicals.

Next, let’s speculate on what, exactly all of these vague comments about game changing microbials are about.

Somewhere in the mix, one might expect them to use Mycorrhiza:

I’ve defined Mycorrhiza here previously, in this brief summary:

Mycorrhiza, which means “root-fungus” grows in healthy soils and functions symbiotically with plants by enhancing the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients. The fungus attaches to plant roots, increasing the root surface area which comes in contact with the soil. It excretes enzymes which allow it to dissolve soil nutrients, and extends the life of the root. Mycorrhizal fungus greatly amplifies the ability of plant roots to uptake and reuse phosphorus.

This fungus increases the drought tolerance of plants and can reduce water needs by 25 percent. It increases the fruit and flowering of plants while reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It also enables plants to grow in salty or contaminated soils and increases the temperature stress tolerance for plants. It helps protect plants from disease, and helps store carbon in the soil. Mycorrhiza has the potential to bring poor and degraded lands back into cultivation.

It is possible to encourage mycorrhiza growth in soils by adding compost to your garden soil, by not using synthetic chemicals, using minimum tillage, rotating crops, and growing cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall, you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth. Or, it can be purchased and added directly to sterile potting soils, or degraded soil.

Novozymes says they already have a product that coats seeds with a fungus “that grows along the plant’s roots and produces phosphates, promoting growth and saving chemical fertilizer.” UPDATE: This product, called JumpStart uses the bacterium penicillium bilaii.

Another root-colonizing, helpful bacteria is Rhizobacteria, which form symbiotic relationships with plants, and are generally thought of as important to biofertilizer producers. Rhizobacteria help with nitrogen fixation, and thus enhance plant growth. Inoculating them onto seed can encourage them to colonize the root zones of plants. The rhizosphere, which is the ecosystem around the roots of plants, includes many microorganisms. There are subsistence farmers in India, for example, who know how to use these bacteria to their advantage, according to a friend of this site who also works on similar products.

More thoughts…

In Joel Salatin types of farming methods, soils are already teaming with plant growth-enhancing microbials. And today, some sustainable farming advocates are finding that by using multiple varieties of seeds in cover crops, as on this North Dakota farm that I’ve featured here before, these microbials take off and do save water and fertilizer inputs while producing great crop yields. Useful microbes already exist in healthy soils and there are methods which encourage them to thrive. Today’s industrial agriculture system is not one of them. It would make so much more sense to work with Nature’s wisdom, rather than destroy it and then try to rebuild it.

Some say that the ubiquitous microbials need to be specific for the region and location to match the soils and environment unique to the region. Many say that the life world which teams beneath our feet in soil is a future frontier, a mystery yet to be explored. In healthy soil, there seems to be an infinite variety of microbial life. This whole subject is ripe for discovery, as it relates to carbon storage, too.

Many scientists, smaller companies, and individuals have been studying these microbes for a long time, and some already have products on the market.

It is encouraging to see that the future of industrial agriculture is taking a new direction towards sustainability. Good seeds with sustainable practices sounds like a winner to me.

UPDATE: I recommend this Forbes article for more specific information about this venture between Monsanto and Novozymes.

***

Additional Reading:
Novozymes infographic “What are Agricultural Biologicals?”

Mycorrhiza Proves Valuable in Qatar’s Saline Soils

TED Talk: Phosphorus Fertilizer Should Be Replaced with Mycorrhizal Fungi

PBS Video on Qatar’s Food Security Innovation

Hot 5: March Temps. Steiger Fuel Efficiency. Mycorrhiza for Soil. Soybean Supply. Agricultural Trade.

Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

Is Humanity Really Going to Starve to Death in Twenty Years Because We Will Have Run Out of Potash and Phosphorus Fertilizers?

6 thoughts on “Monsanto Going Green: Using Bacteria and Fungi to Increase Crop Yields and Lower Inputs

  1. John Walker

    At last multi-nationals are taking note of what nature can do – such a pity they did not take note of the extensive use of rhizobacteria that has been marketed and used by farmers in India for the past 80 years. These guys have a lot to learn as soil and its inhabitants are like nations – all have different languages – unfortunately everyone does not speak English!!

    Reply
  2. Derek

    If you want to really excite people, share with them this key understanding:

    Microbes in the soil are so important to plants, that it can be likened to our gut flora throughout the intestinal tract – which comprises ~70% of our immune system.

    Understand the research done regarding glyphosate (RoundUp). It is a mineral chelator and GM agricultural practices have demonstrated to be destroying the ecosystem of life in the soil, including microbes. This is the basis of why organic, sustainable farming methods produce food of higher nutrient profiles. The balance of microbes in the soil is of paramount importance to the health of the crops.

    Monsanto profits by peddling patented seeds to farmers, which carries extreme downsides including the inability to reseed, higher costs due to increased chemical and water use, not to mention destroying the soil integrity which reduces yields.

    The destruction of soil integrity is one of Monsanto et al’s biggest downfalls. Rather than concede to the damage their products are causing, they got the brilliant idea of selling people yet another patented, highly profitable product to *try* and restore damage currently being caused by their products.

    So to be a GM farmer you have to increase your expenses to cover higher costs, inability to reseed, reduced yields and now pay even *more* to try and reduce the damage caused by GM practices?

    Organic shows equivalent or higher yields, higher nutrient profiles, decreased chemical and water use and most importantly: you are interacting alongside nature rather than trying to bastardize it. If you work alongside nature, the soil integrity will be rich and the microbes would be in great health already.

    Reply
  3. Zach

    Bayer sells VOTiVO, a rhizobial bacterium that can be applied to seed. The bacteria cover the growing roots with a film that thwarts nematodes.

    Reply
  4. Judy

    I am only an interested lay person reading this article, but when I read the sentence,”This product, called JumpStart uses the bacterium penicillium bilaii.”, I wondered how crops grown and used for human consumption that us this product would affect those of us with a penicillin allergy.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>