Harnessing Natural Alternatives To Synthetic Fertilizers

For more than 50 years, farmers have been using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to increase our food production, and with great success. These fertilizers, often made from fossil fuels, used to be relatively cheap and convenient. As prices increase, however, both farmers and consumers are feeling the pinch of higher costs for producing and buying food. In addition, the potential negative impacts have farmers and the public crying out for sustainable, environmentally friendly solutions.

Scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada believe that the answers lie in going to the root of the issue – more specifically, the root zone (known as the “rhizospere”) of the soil. This is where beneficial microorganisms hold great potential to act not only as biofertilizers but also perhaps one day as biological pesticides. And they’re using a new technology developed in Canada to mine this huge potential.

George Lazarovits, a research scientist at the Southern Crop Protection and Food Research Centre in London, Ontario, is spearheading the work.

“In one tablespoon of soil, there are probably more organisms than in all the Great Lakes combined,” he says, explaining one possible reason why scientists haven’t looked at micro-organisms in the soil as a potential solution before now. ”Not many people study soil because it’s such a big subject.”

With such a large area of study, it was necessary to identify who’s who in the soil world. Enter Sean Hemmingsen of the Plant Biotechnology Institute, part of the National Research Council in Saskatoon. He created the unique DNA technology that can identify all the micro-organisms in the soil and is partnering with Lazarovits on this project.

“It’s a new technology that has never been done before – anywhere in the world,” says Lazarovits.

What’s so great about micro-organisms?

COLONIZE

Beneficial micro-organisms colonize the roots and insides of the plants and promote their growth by increasing the supply or availability of nutrients, supplying additional plant growth hormones, and reducing stresses caused by environmental or disease factors.

In addition, green manures (cover crops that are plowed back into the soil for microbes to eat) can dramatically increase the numbers of micro-organisms and their life-giving benefits. This practice and the use of micro-organisms have long been standard in small-scale organic farming, but they’ve been almost nonexistent in larger-scale productions.

Lazarovits is hopeful that this research on microorganisms will transform the growing of crops for food and biofuel use. To this end, he is working in partnership with colleagues at AAFC, the University of Guelph and the Canadian Laboratory of Inexpensive Maize Biotechnologies (CLIMB).

“As we learn more about the root ecosystem,” he says, “we will use this knowledge to integrate biofertilizers with rotation crops and green manures to enhance the populations of beneficial agents.”

HARNESSING THE RELATIONSHIP

In fact, the relationship between legumes and rhizobacteria has already been harnessed to increase yields and save billions of dollars in fertilizer costs. Scientists have identified numerous bacteria from the roots of corn which may be used to replace or enhance the fertilizers used today. There is also a comeback in using green manures to add beneficial bacteria into the soil.

“Our discoveries lend themselves to commercialization,” says Lazarovits. “And we anticipate the growth of an industry that will surpass Rhizobacteria, currently the biggest-selling biofertilizer on the market today.”

The research underway promises to enhance the environmental performance of the Canadian agricultural system, one of the priorities of AAFC’s Science and Innovation Strategy, and may revolutionize the way farmers do business.

Ignored no longer, microorganisms in the soil and on roots may hold the key to a number of issues, including enhanced environmental performance, bigger crop yields and a brighter bottom line for farmers. At a time when concerns about the environment, climate change, fuel and food security are growing, these little organisms promise big results.

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