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Coming Attractions

Microbial Farming

Iron and manganese bacterial oxidizers in the mud of a fishpond.

In one gram of soil, a thimble’s worth, there can be up to 10 billion microbial denizens. The bacteria, viruses, nematodes, and fungi in the soil have sweeping potential to address agriculture’s impact on global warming. The possibilities are rooted in microbes’ ability to dramatically reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, while improving crop yields, plant health, and food security.

At present, converting nitrogen to ammonia for fertilizer requires 1.2 percent of the world’s energy use. Much of that nitrogen ends up in the sky as nitrous oxides—a greenhouse gas 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Or it leaches into groundwater and waterways, causing the overgrowth of algae and marine dead zones.

The soil microbiome invites agriculture to do a much better job of getting what is wanted from the land—healthy, tasty, abundant food—by harmonizing farming with the needs of the soil. It comes down to a simple fact: Plants and soil feed upon each other. With a healthy microbiome, soil is rich in carbon and organic matter, requires few if any synthetic fertilizers, and creates healthier plants. Someday, a farmer may drive to the local fertilizer store not to buy fertilizer but to pick up nitrogen-fixing bacteria instead.

Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.

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