Not many years ago, global health advocates bemoaned the fact that it took decades for life-saving vaccines to become widely accessible in poorer countries. This resulted in the unnecessary deaths of millions of children every year. Today, however, childhood vaccines are available nearly everywhere. This was thanks to global partnerships between governments, industry and philanthropists.
Unfortunately, the same is not true of agricultural technologies, which can also be life-saving. In poor countries, low agricultural productivity and soil degradation are factors driving chronic hunger and malnutrition and associated sickness and premature death. Indeed, malnutrition contributes to almost half of all child deaths.
But the current revolution in agricultural technology that is reshaping Western agriculture is yet to reach poor countries in Africa. This is certainly the case when it comes to agricultural products based on the use of soil microbes. These are naturally occurring microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.
Microbial-based solutions are perhaps the best-kept secret among the innovations driving agriculture today. Much more is commonly known about precision techniques, drones and satellite data. Yet in developed countries microbial-based solutions are a $2.3 billion market – and growing.
Microbial-based solutions also have funds and support from the largest corporations in agriculture.
Monsanto and Novozymes created the BioAg Alliance. This long-term strategic parternship brings together their capabilities in microbial discovery, development and production. $300 million was put in for research and development. In addition, Bayer Crop Sciences developed Poncho®/Votivo®, a biological seed treatment. This product protects young soybean plants from pests. It also improves root growth and increases yields by 15%.
Other companies that have invested in this area include Agbiome, a biotechnology company using knowledge of plant-associated microbiome to create innovative products for agriculture, and Bioconsortia, a company specialising in the discovery and development of natural microbial products. There’s also Symbiota, a company developing microbial solutions for agriculture.
Microbial products are so exciting partly because they are derived from naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. These microscopic creatures form mutually beneficial associations with plants including maize, tomatoes and peppers.
They help improve soil fertility and strengthen plant defences against insect pests and diseases. They also help plants tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations that come with a changing climate. They have the potential to improve agriculture and help humanity feed the growing population in a changing climate while protecting the environment.
In Africa, microbial science for agriculture is just getting started. Yet it is here where there is an overwhelming need to improve crop productivity and soil health.
Some 65% of African farmland is degraded. Unhealthy and degraded soils are a major obstacle to food security and development. They also cost African farmers $68 billion annually. Crops grown in depleted soils are nutrient-poor and low-yielding. Indeed, yields for several staple food crops in sub-Saharan Africa have remained stagnant for decades.
Searching for solutions
Researchers at several institutions are searching for microbial solutions for Africa’s low-performing staple crops.
The John Innes Centre based in the UK is leading an investigation into whether bacteria can be tapped to help cereal crops access nitrogen and help improve yields. AgBiome was recently awarded a multi-year grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discover beneficial microbes with the ability to control sweet potato weevils.
This is a beginning. But to catch up with the rest of the world, Africa needs to move faster. A unified microbial research initiative is needed. This would bring together research institutions, private industry and funding agencies and could help lobby resources.
The good will is already there. In 2012 a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, highlighted the need to identify and advance proven microbial-based agricultural technologies. But a formal, ongoing initiative is needed to follow through on the promise of soil microbial science for Africa.
Healthy soils underpin agriculture and therefore should be given a top priority.