Microbes Can be Tapped to Increase Agricultural   Productivity and Help Feed the World

Agricultural productivity, the output-to-input ratio in agricultural systems, can be further boosted. More so, it can be accomplished in an environmentally friendly and economically efficient way with the help of microbes. Agricultural yields can increase while at the same time reduce dramatically the use of chemical inputs, the American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific branch of the American Society for Microbiology, reports (Reid and Greene 2012).

In relation to food production, the American Academy of Microbiology described the importance of microorganisms in the following manner: “Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true, but the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.”

How to increase agricultural productivity and food production to cope up with the projected surge in human population has been, and still is, an urgent concern. By 2050, the United Nations estimate that world population will balloon to about 9.3 billion from 6.9 billion in 2010 (click on to read related page).

The figures show an increase of about 2.4 billion people in just four decades. In relation to the 2010 population estimate, this represents about 35% more mouths to feed. According to Wardlaw et al. (2004), each person is expected to eat about 70,000 meals equivalent to some 60 tons of food during his lifetime. However, not all has access to food and the picture of a starving population continues to hound the policy makers.

According to the report made available by the American Society for Microbiology in August 2013 (ASM 2013), food supply must be boosted by increasing agricultural yields by 70-100%.

In December 2012, 26 authorities in plant-microbe interactions gathered in Washington, DC to discuss how these interactions can be employed to help feed the world. The  meeting was convened by the American Academy of Microbiology in line with its colloquium program to address important issues.

After two days of deliberation, the participants came up with the paper entitled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World: A Report from the American Academy of Microbiology.”

This report sheds light on the essential roles of microbes in food production. It likewise underscores how these organisms can be tapped in enhancing agricultural productivity in an environment friendly and economically responsible way.

Indeed, the microorganisms are not just the dreaded germs and causes of plant diseases. There are the rhizobium bacteria and the mycorrhyzal fungi, but there are many more which can potentially increase crop yields. Viruses can also become beneficial. Here are quotations from the report:

All plants, in all environments, depend on microbes, and therefore, potentially all crops, no matter where they are grown, could benefit from optimization of their microbial partners. The time is right to enlist the capabilities of the microbial world to help solve this pressing human problem.

Microbes support plant health by increasing the availability of nutrients, enhancing plant root growth, neutralizing toxic compounds in the soil, making plants more resistant to disease, heat, flooding, and drought, and deterring pathogens and predators. Microbes and plants are intimate partners in virtually every life process.

How is it that plants can grow in the scalding soil around Yellowstone’s hot springs? How do plants survive in deserts? How do they survive in environments where they may spend weeks underwater due to seasonal flooding, or where the soil is salty, contaminated with heavy metals, or poor in nutrients? The answer, in every case, is because of the microbial communities that help the plants overcome these environmental challenges.

However, the colloquium participants are likewise aware that increasing agricultural productivity to cope up with the expanding global population is a large and complicated challenge. Further, increasing yields without using more lands or using more fossil fuels requires the adoption of more efficient strategies.

Their recommendations:

1. Invest in curiosity-driven, fundamental research.

2. Take on one or more grand challenges. 

          2a. 20:20 in 20 — increase yields by 20% while reducing fertilizer and

pesticide use by 20% in 20 years.

          2b. Fully characterize the microbiome of a single important crop plant.

          2c. Characterize the response of a variety of plant-microbe communities to

a particular stress. 

3. Establish a formal process for moving discoveries from the lab to the table.

LITERATURE CITED 

[ASM] AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR MICROBIOLOGY. 2013. How microbes can help feed the world, August 2013. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2013 from http://academy.asm.org/index.php/browse-all-reports/800-how-microbes-can-help-feed-the-world?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=FeedTheWorld.

REID A, GREENE SE. 2012. How microbes can help feed the world: a report from the American Academy of Microbiology. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2013 from http://academy.asm.org/images/stories/documents/FeedTheWorld.pdf.

WARDLAW GM, HAMPL JS, DISILVESTRO RA. 2004. Perspectives in Nutrition. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Co., Inc. p. 3.


(Ben G. Bareja. September 2013)


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