Using Microbes to Manage Climate Change

 Importance of Microbes in Our Soil

With regards to balancing increasingly unruly climate, soil microorganisms have been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years through the   mycorrhizal filaments, which are coated in a sticky protein called “glomalin.” Glomalin may account for as much as one-third of the world’s soil carbon — and the soil contains more carbon than all plants and the atmosphere combined.

Present State of Microbes

We are now at a point where microbes that thrive in healthy soil have been largely rendered inactive or eliminated in most commercial agricultural lands; they are unable to do what they have done for hundreds of millions of years, to access, conserve, and cycle nutrients and water for plants and regulate the climate. Half of the earth’s habitable lands are farmed and we are losing soil and organic matter at an alarming rate. Studies show steady global soil depletion over time, and a serious stagnation in crop yields.

So, not only have we hindered natural processes that nourish crops and sequester carbon in cultivated land, but modern agriculture has become one of the biggest causes of climate instability. Our current global food system, from clearing forests to growing food, to chemical fertilizer applications, to food storage and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. This is more than all the cars and trucks in the transportation sector, which accounts for about one-fifth of all green house gases globally.

State like California lays more emphasis on car smog which is okay but could do more and incentivize organic farmers and sectors that promotes and helps to reduce climate instability.

Moving Forward

The greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people living on the planet is thus arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food. Overall soil ecology still holds many mysteries. What Leonardo Da Vinci said five hundred years ago is probably still true today: “ we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot .” Though you never see them, ninety percent of all organisms on the seven continents live underground. In addition to bacteria and fungi, the soil is also filled with protozoa, nematodes, mites, and microarthropods. There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin.

We hear about many endangered animals in the Amazon and now all around the world. We all know about the chainsaw-wielding workers cutting trees in the rainforest. But we hear relatively little about the destruction of the habitat of kingdoms of life beyond plant and animal — that of bacteria and fungi. Some microbiologists are now warning us that we must stop the destruction of the human microbiome, and that important species of microorganisms may have already gone extinct, some which might possibly play a key role in our health

Steps Taken

1st Choice Fertilizer, has made good progress in mapping the soil microbiome, and also identify some species vital to soil and plant health, so they can be reintroduced as necessary. We dedicated to analyzing and mapping microbial communities in soils. We do not want to find ourselves in the position we have been with regard to many animal species that have gone extinct. We have already decimated or eliminated known vital soil microorganisms in certain soils and now need to reintroduce them. But it is very different from an effort, let us say, to reintroduce the once massive herds of buffalo to the American plains. We need these tiny partners to help build a sustainable agricultural system, to stabilize our climate in an era of increasing severe weather, and to maintain our very health and well-being.

Looking Back on Our Past

The mass destruction of soil microorganisms began with technological advances in the early twentieth century. The number of tractors in the U.S. went from zero to three million by 1950. Farmers increased the size of their fields and made cropping more specialized. Advances in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers made them abundant and affordable. Ammonium nitrate produced in WWII for munitions was then used for agriculture (we recently saw the explosive power contained in one such fertilizer factory in the town of West Texas). The “Green Revolution” was driven by a fear of how to feed massive population growth. It did produce more food, but it was at the cost of the long-term health of the soil. And many would argue that the food it did produce was progressively less nutritious as the soil became depleted of organic matter, minerals, and microorganisms. Arden Andersen, a soil scientist and agricultural consultant turned physician, has long argued that human health is directly correlated to soil health.

During this same period, we saw the rise of the “biological agriculture” movement, largely in reaction to these technological developments and the mechanization of agriculture. In the first part of the twentieth century, the British botanist Sir Albert Howard and his wife Gabrielle documented traditional Indian farming practices, the beginning of the biological farming movement in the West. Austrian writer, educator, and activist Rudolf Steiner advanced a concept of “biodynamic” agriculture. In 1930, the Soil Society was established in London. Shortly thereafter, Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese microbiologist working in soil science and plant pathology, developed a radical no-till organic method for growing grain and other crops that has been practiced effectively on a small scale.

Solution For the Future 

Fortunately, there is now a strong business case for the reintroduction of soil microorganisms in both small farms and large-scale agribusiness. Scientific advances have now allowed us to take soil organisms from an eco-farming niche to mainstream agribusiness. We can replenish the soil and save billions of dollars. Many field tests, including a recent one at the University of North Dakota, show that application of a commercial mycorrhizal fungi product to the soybean root or seeds increased soybean yields from 5 to 15 percent. The U.S. market for soybeans is currently worth about $43 billion annually, so adding healthy microbes to the crop will save billions (the value of increased yields is three to five times greater than the cost of application at current prices). Studies show that there will also be major savings from reduced need for chemical fertilizers and irrigation due to more efficient up-take of minerals and water. This also means fewer toxins and pollutants, particularly nitrogen fertilizers, leaching from agricultural lands into our public water system and rivers, which has contributed to massive “dead zones” like that in the Mississippi Delta.

For all these reasons, bio fertility products are now a $500 million industry and growing fast.

Reintroducing microorganisms into the soil, together with the organic matter they feed upon, has the potential to be a key part of the next big revolution in human health — the development of sustainable agriculture and food security based on restored soil health. Just as in the case of the human microbiome, the soil drugs of the future are ones full of friendly germs, and the foods they like to eat.


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