Uncovering Mother Nature’s Dirty Secrets to Improve Harvests

I want to let you in on some of Mother Nature’s dirtiest secrets. They’ve been sneaking around for centuries helping us to make all sorts of delicious foods and beverages. But today, we’re digging deeper to put them to work to help farmers grow healthier crops.

I’m talking about microbes. They’re key to fermentation, which is essential for some of our all-time favorite foods and beverages, from bread, cheese and yogurt to beer and wine. In recent years, we’ve learned much more about the microbes that naturally occur in the soil and the roles they play in the growth and development of plants. With up to 50 billion microbes in a single tablespoon of soil, there’s a lot of ground to uncover.

As we better understand these microbial-plant relationships, we’re able to put the “good microbes” to use for farmers to support their crops, deploying them to help plants absorb nutrients, resist drought and fend off pests or disease. And it’s worth noting that these natural solutions can and do benefit farmers of all types, ranging from modern row crop farmers to organic fruit and vegetable producers.

In recent years, we’ve seen tremendous advances in microbial research, with advances stemming from large agricultural companies, startups and academic institutions alike. At Monsanto, we’re marking the third anniversary of the BioAg Alliance, our partnership with Novozymes dedicated to microbials research and product development. Earlier this year, we introduced the first jointly produced BioAg Alliance seed treatment product, Acceleron B-300 SAT, which helps corn plants better absorb phosphorous in the soil. Our 2016 field testing showed that farmers using Acceleron B-300 SAT produced an average of three more bushels of corn per acre.

In the coming years, we expect to introduce additional products that are based on naturally-occurring microbial strains that can help corn and soy plants better absorb nutrients. As we evaluate and test more than 500,000 microbe strains, we’re developing additional concepts that could help farmers who grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and potentially other crops.

I’m also excited about some of the microbials research coming from the startup community and mid-sized companies. For example, New Leaf Symbiotics is making great progress in research on symbiotic bacteria that can help plants to better absorb nutrients.

On the academic front, I’m paying close attention to the important research being led by Dr. Gwen Beattie at Iowa State University focusing on microbes’ role in water absorption by plants and other potential impacts on plant health. And nonprofits like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation are performing extensive field studies involving microbials as well.

Thanks to this active and collaborative scientific community focused on microbials, I have no doubt that we will continue to uncover new possibilities and capabilities from the dirt underneath our feet. Microbials could help farmers with everything from pest protection to reducing fertilizer use and CO2 output. When combined with the other tools in the modern farmer’s toolkit, including breeding, biotechnology, digital ag and precision farming tools, we should expect continued progress in our efforts to help farmers produce bountiful harvests while using fewer natural resources.

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