Category Archives: seeds

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.

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.

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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?

The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling

The September issue of Scientific American is all about food. I’m a subscriber, but unfortunately my issue hasn’t arrived, yet. With article titles like Processed Food: A 2-Million-Year History, Return of the Natives: How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System, The Truth about Genetically Modified Food, Science Reveals Why Calorie Counts Are All Wrong, and Invasive Species Menu of a World-Class Chef (about eating bugs), needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading my hard copy.

It is a significant development in the world of GMO awareness and journalism, that the Sci-Am editors have written “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea – Mandatory labels for genetically modified foods are a bad idea”, telling us that 20-some states now have the issue on ballots. Below, I’ve chosen some excerpts.

Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. (The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.) … Americans who oppose genetically modified foods would celebrate a similar exclusion. Everyone else would pay a price. Because conventional crops often require morewater and pesticides than GMOs do, the former are usually more expensive. Consequently, we would all have to pay a premium on non-GMO foods—and for a questionable return. … Antagonism toward GMO foods also strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more.

Buying GMO free food is easy enough to do already without requiring the industry to label it GMO-Free. Just buy organically labeled food, buy from your favorite local organic farmer, or grow your own.

This Sci-Am article is one more nail in the coffin of those who are anti-GMO activists. In one of the Sci-Am articles, plant molecular biologist Robert Goldberg expresses despair at the fact that the arguments against GM haven’t changed in forty years.

GM activists are anti-science. They are anti- the rest of us. They are the anti-, anti-, anti- crowd in general. Often, they do not understand what they oppose. Genetic modification is the issue that separates the food production illusory idealists from those of us grounded in the real world of economics and science and most important of all, from the actual producer’s level.

One can support the science of GM and still want to see biodiversity, bee health, and farm methods which preserve our soil and keep our water clean.Those are separate issues. Those issues often rely upon policy choices or special interests, but please don’t blame GM science for that.

Some of the formerly religious on this issue are turning around, are starting to get it. We all know the Mark Lynas story, still less than a year old. I was quite surprised to see the prominent environmental site, Grist, recently hire Nathanael Johnson to ease the Grist readers into opening their minds about the debate, and he’s doing a nice job. But disappointingly, just this week I saw NYTs food writer, Mark Bittman, embrace the ongoing anti-, anti- of Tom Phillpot who writes anti- for Mother Jones. Not to be left behind by Grist, Philpott says that he’ll make an exception for using GMOs for oranges (only), following the widely read NYTs piece, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” related to citrus greening, a disease wiping out our U.S. orange crops. And, Michael Pollan continues to reinforce the anti-science thinking of these two influential writers (Philpott and Bittman) via Twitter.

Well, guess what? Citrus greening isn’t the only disease or pest threatening crops that feed humans. New threats surface constantly and they are quietly dealt with by our scientists, too often unappreciated and taken for granted by the vast majority of us.

Let’s face it. Most of us are spoiled rotten when it comes to getting food, as compared to any other age in human history. Most of us are no longer hands on when it comes to growing food. We just drive to the store, make our selection from the infinite choices we find there, come home and prepare it, or eat what others prepare for us. And we like it that way. Yet, somehow we feel entitled to go after the real-world producers who do the sweaty work and take on the countless risks involved that are required to actually grow our food.

Oppose this technology and there is blood on your hands. Science without GM lacks the potential to feed as many people, and feed them as nutritiously. We need to look no further than the very unfortunate Philippines story from two weeks ago, when activists destroyed the GM rice trials of Golden Rice, a rice modified to produce Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death of children in vulnerable populations.

GM technology is advancing rapidly and can help solve food growing challenges such as weather resilience, improved nutrition, yields, pest and disease resilience.

Good environmentalists should support genetic modification. And why should the rest of us pay higher food prices because activists oppose this important science and want GM labeling?

ALSO SEE: Biotech Crop Adoption Around the World and a Statement about GM Activism, and Synthetic Biology – What Does it Mean for Agriculture?

Garden Interview with Barbara, Part 3.

In today’s Part 3. Interview with Barbara about gardening, we cover soil and her low tech greenhouse. Note that Barbara was an exemplary gardener here in Boulder, but has relocated to Washington State along the Columbia River. This series of interviews mostly covers her garden here in Boulder but draws upon her lifetime experience of gardening in different places. If you missed the first two interviews, they are here:


This is Barbara in her backyard. You can see her free ranging chickens, her vegetable garden, greenhouse, and coop, all in the background.

Q: Please explain your soil practices. What was your annual routine and did you you see your productivity change as time went on and your soil improved?

A: My soil practice was never to till, just to feed the soil life and that meant tons and tons (literally) of rottable material over the years. I began with cardboard over the grass and weeds, vast quantities of grass clippings from landscape maintenance folks and manure from local horses. All was piled up into large sheet compost blankets to rot down. The goat manure and chicken manure went on selected areas – it was perfect for the lawn and some heavy feeders in the garden plus the potted plants. I do miss the animals and their manure now!

Annually, I put down the same materials whenever I could get them but the biggest annual push was the leaf bags in autumn. I trundled over 1000 bags from the front drop off zone to the back garden most years. Sometimes a bit less and occasionally a bit more. They all disappeared into the soil thanks to my faithful worm workers. The productivity did improve but it was a great gardening area to start with since it’s in the alluvial floodplain of South Boulder Creek. However, I found over time that digging and planting became much easier in the resulting enriched layer. It became several feet deep in the oldest garden areas.

Q: Did you ever use compost tea, and if so, describe how you made it.

A: Yes, I tried it in the greenhouse but found it was such a bother. The only benefit is to foliar feed with it and it seemed much easier to mix up liquid fish fertilizer or kelp fertilizer with a bucket of water for that. I tried it with manure + water and then again with alfalfa pellets + water before abandoning the idea. As to the aerated tea – way too much fuss for me although I know others swear by it.

Q: Have you gardened with soil Mycorrhiza in mind? If so, explain techniques that you think enhance soil Mycorrhiza and how much does that stimulate garden growth?

A: Mycorrhiza will save the world – yes I believe that indeed. I read Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running years ago and believed it completely. So in Boulder, with all my leaves and hay, the mycorrhiza and other fauna had a smorgasbord to eat and I found fungal strands all through the soil. Here in Washington it was pretty barren and I bought a mycorrhiza starter last spring which I used to inoculate the entire vegetable garden and was overjoyed when small mushrooms sprouted up everywhere. I think the biggest problem with keeping them happy after feeding them is not letting the soil dry out. Mulch helps a lot. By the way, I’m growing Blue Oysters from Fungi Perfecta on several logs here – they are small still but we anticipate some good eating.

Q: You always advertised to people driving by your property in the fall to leave their leaves with you. How many bags of leaves did you add to your garden each year and please explain how harvesting large quantities of leaves played a role in your garden?

Well, it varied from year to year but it was between 500 and 1000 big black plastic garbage bags of leaves. In the zone 5 garden, they were invaluable. I used them everywhere as normal mulch to keep the ground from drying in the winter winds and summer sun. I used crunchy dry ones as goat or chicken coop bedding (which made its way to the garden eventually), used them to protect my tender perennials like the dahlias which often lived through zone 5 winters in the ground under huge piles of leaves. I plopped the plastic bags full of leaves over the carrots, beets or parsnips and covered the patch so well that the ground didn’t freeze and we could harvest in the coldest months just by picking up a bag and digging.

The worms and other tiny critters absolutely thrive with lots and lots of leaves. I used leaves often covered by hay to demarcate paths through the garden and it was easy to change those pathways from year to year. A huge wall of leaves went up against the two long walls of the greenhouse every fall and stayed there through the winter as insulation against the cold. I always throw a few inches of leaves in the bottom of any decorative pot I plant – food for the worms that I make sure are included as well. Now I live in such a mild climate the leaves are not quite as critical. However I still am making my gardens with many sheets of overlapping cardboard (to kill the lawn without rototilling) and with a thick layer of leaves on top.

Q: In your experience, did the way in which you enhanced and mulched your soil greatly reduce your irrigation requirements here in Boulder where we, on average, get only 18 inches of rainfall per year? If so, could you please give us pointers on how to reduce water needs through good gardening practices?

Oh, improving and then maintaining the tilth is critical. A healthy soil with lots of humus keeps moisture down at the roots and of course the mulch minimizes evaporation. You want your soil to be a sponge, to encourage the millions of critters that live in a healthy garden. They will aerate and enrich the soil as they move through it, eating each other and rotting material (like your leaf mulch). They fertilize with their manure, they open channels for rain to permeate, they create tilth – they are essential to soil life. So the best gardening practice I know is to let them live their lives as undisturbed as possible — and mulch to keep them happy.

Q: You had a lovely and simple low-tech greenhouse on your property here in Boulder where you started plants from seed. Please explain whether you think a greenhouse project is worthwhile and what did you use yours for?

A: I think a greenhouse is great for long season gardening – no frost from perhaps April through October and it’s possible to extend that if you are faithful in covering up on cold nights and days. Of course some crops don’t die off in freezing weather, so they are fairly easy. I loved being able to enter another growing zone by opening the door to the place and breathe in green growing smells.

I used it in winter for parsley, arugula, mustard, kale, lettuce (some like Winter Density, Winter Marvel and Sea of Red are pretty hardy) although the plants don’t actively grow through the low sunlight time of year and when you are snipping greens, you can’t take too much. Greens grown out of the stress of wind and extreme cold are really tender and sweet. There was a row of 9 (I think) 55 gallon drums filled with water on the north side that served as thermal mass, along with the damp ground. I also used that environment to overwinter my tender perennials like fuchsia, geranium, taro, etc. as buried in heaps of leaves, they never froze. They died back of course, but grew from the roots in spring. I loved being able to keep them alive year after year and that would never have been possible in our small house.

In spring, the greenhouse was my seed starting haven. The sun there was usually so bright that the tomatoes, peppers, etc. could be uncovered by day and then snugged under blankets of bubble wrap or floating row covers for cold nights or days. I loved growing plants “indoors” during that iffy spring season. The greens kept going strong.

In summer, the eggplant and peppers were planted in the ground to flourish in the quite hot environment under the greenhouse plastic. However the double doors at the east and west ends were opened plus the entire long south side plastic wall was rolled up 4’ from the ground so there was a good flow of air circulating. I had a big fan but never used it unless I needed to direct it at me to cool down. It NEVER got too hot for the plants there who love warmth. One summer I also grew melons and they liked it as well but they took up a lot of space.

In autumn, I continued to harvest peppers, and eggplant long after frost outside. I moved the tender perennials in for their vacation and sowed the winter greens. The greenhouse was in use 12 months a year.

[End Part 3. of interview. Come back next Friday for Part 4. Thank-you Barbara!]