Companies seek to boost agricultural productivity

Research conducted in 170,000 field trials

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

HUXLEY — A new generation of plant-friendly microscopic bacteria and fungi is increasing crop yields as much as 10 percent in test plots, according to Monsanto and Novozymes executives speaking last week at a BioAg Alliance Media Day.

“This is a game changer, a transformational event in the evolution of agriculture,” said World Food Prize laureate Robb Fraley, Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer.

St. Louis-headquartered Monsanto and Denmark-based Novozymes have partnered in the BioAg Alliance to boost agricultural productivity while improving natural resource management, officials with both companies said.

They said they expect the Alliance to expand the research and commercialization of a new generation of microbials to help farmers sustainably meet world food demands.

This year, the companies conducted research in 170,000 field trial plots in 70 locations throughout the United States, and the companies expect to more than double the number of research field plots next season.

Monsanto Vice President Tom Adams said researchers have identified nine microbial strains that have demonstrated yield advantages ranging from 7.4 to 14.3 bushels per acre of corn, when compared with untreated control plants.

“Understanding and applying the natural benefits of microbes represents the next step forward in the art of agriculture,” Novozymes Executive Vice President Tomas Videbaek said.

His company brings microbial research and manufacturing expertise while Monsanto brings field testing capability and expertise in marketing and compliance, Videbaek said.

“Together we can transform the ways microbials are used in agriculture,” he said.

“This is not snake oil. This is not a science fair project. Microbials can help farmers mitigate risks and maximize yields though soil health and pest control,” said Brad Griffith, a Monsanto vice president.

“We are not altering these organisms at all,” said Adams, alluding to criticism of Monsanto in developing genetically modified seeds.

“These aren’t GMOs,” said Fraley, who headed a Monsanto team that in 1983 developed the first genetically modified plants, which led 13 years later to the introduction of the first genetically modified crops, Roundup Ready soybeans and Bollgard insect-protected cotton.

Microbials, also known as biologicals, are “a hot topic,” both for their potential utility and for the lack of safety concerns and relative ease through the regulatory process stemming from their non-GMO status, said Ed Anderson, research director for the Iowa Soybean Association.

Before they become widely adopted, however, Anderson said individual farmers will have to see how they perform over three or four years on their own farms.

Iowa Corn Promotion Board President Chris Edgington, who farms in Mitchell County, said he will be watching the development of microbials with keen interest.

“It’s exciting to see these new developments come out. Some live up to expectations while others fall by the wayside,” he said.

About 50 billion microbes — both bacteria and fungi — live in a typical tablespoon of soil, according to Iowa State University microbiology and plant pathology professor Gwyn Beattie, who participated in a panel discussion at last week’s Huxley presentation.

“They are partners with plants, which evolve and exist in intimate symbiosis with microbes,” Beattie said.

Fungi, she said, can comprise as much as 80 percent of a plant’s effective root system.

“Microbes help plants acquire nutrients and protect plants against pathogens,” she said.

With recent technological advances in microbiology, “We can systematically identify beneficial strains,” she said.

Fraley said BioAg Alliance researchers are trying to better understand how those organisms interact with plant roots, to raise plants that can absorb nutrients faster and resist destructive diseases.

With expanded testing this year, he said, “we believe we are on track to discover transformational microbial products farmers can add to their toolbox.”

The BioAg Alliance already has introduced microbial inoculants, which help plants take up nutrients, and biocontrol products, which help protect plants against pests, disease and weeds.

The products are available for large-scale row crops such corn and soybeans, as well as for fruits and vegetables.

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