Microbes – a solution to agricultural sustainability?
Written by Dr Hangwei Hu, edited by Dante Romeo and Dr Boris Sarcevic
Meeting the demands of a growing and hungry global population is challenging. During the Green Revolution, synthetic fertilizers, agrochemicals (e.g. pesticides), and new crop cultivars increased crop yields, reduced poverty and addressed hunger. It is estimated that over a billion lives were saved from these advances. This period shaped the technology and techniques used in today’s agricultural systems.
But these innovations were not without cost. Environmental pollution, land degradation, chemical runoff and biodiversity losses are all global consequences of synthetic chemicals used in modern agriculture. For example, 50-80% of nitrogen applied to crops is lost to the environment. Losses cause environmental degradation and low crop nitrogen use efficiency, threatening the environmental sustainability of ecosystems and increasing the cost of food for consumers. Even enhanced efficiency fertilizers, which reduce losses by timing nutrient release to when plants need it most, can be inconsistent and many leave non-biodegradable particles behind in soils. New approaches are necessary to optimise fertiliser utilization. The tiny, invisible but ever-present microbial ecosystems known as microbiomes may provide the solutions needed.
Many types of microbes make up microbiomes – bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses, and protists. Soils are full of microbes, many of which support plant growth. One teaspoon of soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth. Collectively, these microbes perform a myriad of functions, supporting plants through nutrient acquisition, boosted immune systems, and improved stress tolerance. In recent years, new technology has enabled novel insights into these systems and the importance of these tiny players in soil health and agricultural sustainability has begun to be recognised. This knowledge has unlocked the potential for microbial functions to be harnessed to improve crop productivity and sustainability.
Biofertilizers harness microbes or other living organisms to provide nutrients to crops while protecting soil biodiversity and contributing to plant growth and crop yield. As an emerging industry, they are expected to be a highly sustainable substitute for the current synthetic chemicals used. Biofertilizers may even be tailored to specific situations by using different microbes in different situations. For instance, a certain bacterial strain may be used in a disease-ridden field while a fungal isolate could be used to increase uptake of a deficient micronutrient.
Despite significant progress in biofertilizer development, translating knowledge into microbial products that are successfully applied in the field is still a challenge. In our opinion piece we highlight the current difficulties surrounding biofertilizer use and gaps in research surrounding plant-microbe interactions. We also propose novel approaches and techniques that could be used to develop more effective biofertilizers. We envision that the development of biofertilizers and other microbiome-based products for use in agricultural systems will increase food production while reducing environmental impacts to improve sustainability and meeting the world’s growing demand for high-quality, nutritious food.
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