Probiotics of the plant world

Probiotics of the plant world: Why soil microbes are gaining worldwide interest

Written by Tyne Logan for ABC News. Photos by Phill Lee. Read the full article here.

PHOTO:  Healthy soil is filled with microbes, while unhealthy soil has few microbes. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

PHOTO: Healthy soil is filled with microbes, while unhealthy soil has few microbes. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

Interest in soil microbes seems to be skyrocketing, and not just from organic farmers.

Internationally recognised soil scientist Dr Christine Jones travels the world giving talks on the benefits of microscopic organisms that live in and on plants and how they can help improve the quality of your crop, whether it be on the farm or in the garden.

She said with healthy soil biology, plants have been shown to become more resilient to frosts and diseases.

In addition, soil becomes less susceptible to weeds and it ends up costing less for the farmer or gardener without the added costs of inputs.

Dr Jones, who has been studying microbes and giving talks for 40 years, said over the past two years interest had gone through the roof.

"We're seeing bigger and bigger crowds coming to field days," she said.

"Something that you would have had maybe 20 people come along to in New South Wales is now more like 200."

She believes this is a result of consumers becoming more aware of their food.

"Children's health is just abysmal now," she said.

"You can feed your kids with so-called good food and find they're still having health issues, so people are getting concerned with that."

So what are they?

Soil microbes have been described by some as the 'probiotics' of the plant world.

Soil microbes are microscopic organisms that live in healthy soils. They are essential to the formation of well-structured soil with high water-holding capacity and high nutrient status.

PHOTO:  A highly magnified view of a healthy plant root shows numerous fine root hairs and the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi, intermingled with soil particles. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

PHOTO: A highly magnified view of a healthy plant root shows numerous fine root hairs and the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi, intermingled with soil particles. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

In a Mediterranean climate, for microbes to reach a quorum,  which is the minimum number microbes needed for them to behave properly, there needs to be year-round ground cover, as plant roots act as their food and habitat.

Microbes occur naturally in soils but Dr Jones said that as a result of modern day agriculture, where there is frequently bare soil between crops, a quorum of healthy microbes was often lacking, promoting the need for fertilisers and mineral applications to make up for the low bio-availability of nutrients.

She said, ironically, it was those same fertiliser applications that discouraged microbes from living in the soil and according to her, increasing the diversity of microbes in soil improves the quality of a crop.

"If we have sufficient microbes around the roots they can alter the gene expression of the plant so it is able to defend itself from insects and pathogens" Dr Jones said.

"Furthermore, plants are able to extract, through stimulating specific microbes around their roots, all the nutrients they need."

Local demand on the rise

The science of soil microbes has long been popular among organic farmers and biological farms, but it seems it is also now gaining traction among more conventional farmers.

Brent Burns runs his own organic compost business in Vasse, Western Australia, and said he had been overrun with orders for his 'microbe-rich' compost.

He then prepares customised liquid-compost applications for his customers.

PHOTO:  If soil is not adhering to plant roots, it is an indicator of low microbial populations in the rhizosphere. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

PHOTO: If soil is not adhering to plant roots, it is an indicator of low microbial populations in the rhizosphere. (Supplied: Phill Lee)

When he first started the business eight years ago it was slow but he said over the last two years demand had picked up dramatically.

"We've been extremely, extremely busy," Mr Burns said.

"We probably average between 20 to 30 per cent growth at the moment, which is probably five to 10 new customers a week."

His customer base is very wide as well, servicing football clubs, organic farmers, conventional farmers, mine sites, and even golf courses.

More on-farm trial work needed

Planfarm consultant Paul Omedei works with many conventional and biological farmers and said there was certainly merit to the science of soil microbes.

"Farmers are the first among all of us to know that if they look after their soil, that's where the productivity gains come in the future," he said.

But he said the reason many farmers were not willing to try it was a lack of rigorous trial results showing it would be profitable, particularly in the first few years.

"Farmers are under continual price squeeze," Mr Omedei said.

"I think the trial work [currently done] is very ad hoc in that you get demonstration trials that aren't replicated, and there's no rigour around the results."

"If [a farmer] does a trial [themselves] over a 100 hectares and the trial doesn't work and yields less then they've lost income."

The ‘Tesla Of Eco-Villages’ Is An Off Grid Community Producing Its Own Food, Water And Electricity

It’s no secret that today’s aggressive agricultural techniques can take a heavy toll on the environment, both on the land used for crops and livestock, and in the surrounding atmosphere.

The world’s first off-grid village capable of producing its own energy, water and food are set to be erected in Almere, the Netherlands, as early as this summer. ReGen Villages, in partnership with Danish architecture firm Effekt, will help address a number of the world’s pressing issues; the rising population, climate change, and limited resources.

Of course, communal farms aren’t exactly a new idea, with communities like the Amish people and more recent kinds of farming collectives having long lived off the grid. But we’re not talking about another attempt to recreate simple, pastoral living here.

The off-grid villages will feature a number of greenhouses that would allow residents to grow food and recycle waste. Some of the greenhouses will feature high-tech, vertical farms and indoor vegetable gardens. A number of outdoor seasonal gardens will also be integrated into the village.

Resident waste will be recycled and used to feed livestock and soldier flies – a sustainable source of food for the fish – while the fish waste will be used to fertilize an aquaculture system, which in turn, feeds the indoor garden plants. Finally, livestock waste will fertilize the outdoor seasonal gardens.

“We are redefining residential real-estate development by creating these regenerative neighborhoods, looking at first these greenfield pieces of farmland where we can produce more organic food, more clean water, more clean energy, and mitigate more waste than if we just left that land to grow organic food or do permaculture there,” Ehrlich says.

According to RenGen’s calculations, over the course of the year, these high-tech farming systems will be able to produce well over 10 times the amount of crops using the same space, with 90% less water.

“We anticipate literally tons of abundant organic food every year—from vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, chicken, small animal dairy, and protein—that can continually grow and yield in the vertical garden systems all year long,” Ehrlich explains.

Solar panels and other sustainable energy solutions will be utilized to provide residents with 24/7 energy and hot water. In order to maintain these systems, families within the community will need to maintain the village’s ecosystem. Operating a greenhouse, maintaining the solar panels and tending the livestock are but a few of the responsibilities families will need to assume.

A total of 100 pilot homes will be built in Almere, Netherlands, later this year. If the project proves to be successful, the ReGen hopes to launch a number of other pilot villages in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, China, the UAE and potentially the African continent.

Source AnonHQ

Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms. Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon. Garrett Duyck, NRCS/FlickrCC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

Soil building practices, like no-till and composting, can build soil organic matter and improve soil fertility (click to zoom). David Montgomery, Author provided

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

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