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The Next Big Disruption in Agriculture

Country Guide

By Gerald Pilger

Published: May 8, 2017
Crops, Guide Business, Opinion

Sometimes a shock to the system can be a very good thing

In the business world, there’s a term to describe an event that completely changes an existing industry or market. It’s called a disruptor, and it changes how we think, work, and do business.

It can be argued that agriculture has gone through three major disruptions in the last century: the mechanization of farming; the arrival of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the genetics revolution which introduced new varieties, new breeding tools, and genetic engineering. Innovations in each of these fields changed the way we farm, and each resulted in increased productivity and efficiency.

We are now on the cusp of the fourth major disruptor: biology. More specifically, advances in microbiology are opening the eyes of farmers, scientists, those in ag industry, and even venture capitalists to the world beneath the soil surface. And what they are finding down there is truly amazing. In 2012, the American Academy of Microbiology produced a report entitled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World.” That report claimed that attention to microbiology could “increase the productivity of any crop, in any environment, in an economically viable and ecologically responsible manner.” More than just a medium that anchors and feeds the crop, soils are teeming with life. Pick up a handful of healthy fertile soil and you will be holding billions of living organisms in your hand (see chart). In fact, an acre of healthy soil can contain from a few hundred to thousands of pounds of microbial biomass.

And that isn’t all. According to Dr. Mathew Wallenstein, associate professor at Colorado State University, this handful of soil will have tens of thousands of different microbes. “Any soil will have as much microbial diversity as the diversity of life you would find in a tropical rain forest,” says Wallenstein. Science reveals that these tiny organisms play a huge role in the growth of plants. Some convert organic matter into nutrient forms that a plant is able to utilize. Others help protect the plant from disease and pests, and some microbes even communicate with plants, enabling the plant to deal with environmental stresses and reduce the impact of drought, for example. “Microbes are critical to sustainable agriculture,” Wallenstein says. It is the discovery of such symbiotic and complementary relationships that is leading scientists to turn their focus from plant health to soil health. For example, instead of just feeding the plant, farmers are being encouraged to feed the microbes necessary for the conversion of chemical fertilizers into nutrients which the plant can take up.

Microbes in the soil

*Sylvia, Fuhrmann, Hartel and Zuberer, 1998

Read more: The Next Big Disruption in Agriculture

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