Microbes Fuel Agricultural Moonshot

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

I read an interesting article from the Washington Post of few days ago talking about how agricultural practices will have to change given the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. With global population skyrocketing, plus climate change and shifting diets,  the article posed the problem as a challenge akin to a “moonshot.” The National Academy of Sciences answered the call and has assembled a panel of eight staff and 13 scientists from institutions across the country. The report they’re set to deliver next March will lay out a “strategic vision” for how to rapidly improve the quality and quantity of food.

I’ve always been partial to real-world thinking when it comes to solving problems. We can all relate to finding new agricultural practices that improve quality and yields with fewer required inputs. The answer isn’t very far away; in fact it’s just below our feet. Beneficial microbes and plant roots continuously exchange a vast array of essential compounds, and they can be harnessed to fuel the agricultural moonshot.

As we gain a better understanding of how microbes influence plant health and growth, we can be the Louis Pasteurs of the future – his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and prevention of diseases, discoveries that have saved so many lives, were essentially the beginnings of microbiology.

We have an armada of bacteria (our microbiome) that sails the seas of our gut, enabling our immune system to sort microbial friends from foes. But when our gut microbiome goes awry, our health can go with it. Louis Pasteur understood this, and today the medical industry is taking notice. As farmers, we have always understood the similarities between plants and ourselves but the real discovery today is that we are not what we eat. We are all—for better or worse—the product of what our microbes eat!

Understanding the microbial world in our growing systems will yield better health. The soil beneath our feet holds the key to transforming agriculture for the betterment of the world. As we learn more about the roles of specific microbes and how we can enhance and accelerate the process of building incredible soil biology, we can produce more and healthier crops faster. This will be our moonshot moment.