The worldwide demand for food crops is only increasing and research is proving that plant and soil microbes are crucial to the growth and production of crops. Therefore, it’s highly important to gain a thorough understanding of these microbiomes and the influence of climate change on them, in order to maintain the global food supply in a changing climate. A massive task—but thanks to ever-improving next-generation sequencing techniques, this knowledge is within reach. The emerging field of functional microbial ecology is describing how microbes are both contributing to, and mitigating, the production of greenhouse gas; the field also characterizes the microbial reactions to environmental change, allowing for the development of a microbiome-based approach to farming in a changing environment.
Similar to the way skin and gut microbiota play an essential role in human health, plant and soil microbes and the interactions between them are essential for plant growth and development. “There is growing evidence that crop microbiomes play essential roles in plant health and agriculture productivity,” says Dr. Brajesh Singh, Professor and Director of the Global Centre for Land-Based Innovation, at Western Sydney University. “As a result there is a renewed attempt to use microbes as alternatives or complements to conventional farming tools,” explains Singh. “However, sustained growth of this industry is dependent on a better understanding of ecology, physiology and competitiveness of introduced microbes in agriculture fields in different climatic and environmental conditions.”
A new global initiative
Singh himself is poised to be a big part of this renewed push through the establishment of a Global Crop/Agri-Microbiome Initiative. As an internationally recognized expert in the field of microbial ecology, Singh serves as a senior editor of Biodegradation and on the editorial boards for several other journals as well as being an invited expert for several peer review committees.
The mission of his new initiative is to bring together public and private entities, “to establish and promote innovative farming and farm management practices based on systems approaches which harness natural resources such as crop and soil microbiomes, to sustainably increase farm productivity, food quality and environmental health.”
Singh believes this initiative will be uniquely capable of addressing some of the major impending challenges in agriculture and he is on the hunt for partners to join him in this effort.
“We need to balance the need to increase agriculture productivity to feed the ever-growing human population, and the need to maintain environmental sustainability,” says Singh. That is to say, modern farming has led to great increases in productivity but in many places, including some non-industrialized countries, declines in soil fertility can no longer be salvaged by adding the traditional resources. There is also a widespread concern in the global community around the effect of excessive use of agrochemicals on human and environmental health.
“The initiative aims to complement conventional farming by providing basic data to develop new microbial solutions which could be used with conventional farming and increase the efficacy of agrochemicals; and where appropriate, reduce their use as well,” says Singh.
Partnering for a new paradigm in agriculture
The initiative will work in partnership with the non-profit Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International; academic institutions; societies such as Soil Science, Plant, Ecology and Microbiology; and several international bodies including UK-CABI Plant Microbiome, Phytobiomes Alliance, Microbiome Support, and the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative. The group is currently looking specifically for commercial partners to help in identifying knowledge gaps and promoting funding for—and adoption of—microbiome-based solutions.
According to Singh, this is an attractive partnership for industry because industrial partners will be invited to shape the vision and activities of the initiative and participate directly in things like sampling, sequencing, analysis, training and lobbying activities. “In return,” says Singh, “all data will be made public so that industry, policy advisors and the general public can benefit directly from the activities of the initiative.”
Several of the initiative’s planned activities are poised to change the future of agricultural production and science. The creation of a global microbiome database spanning the current and forthcoming microbiome initiatives will provide a translational framework for collaborative research. These approaches will also provide support for standardization of research and innovation approaches for early commercialization. A significant benefit from this project will also be felt by the next generation of microbiome researchers and entrepreneurs. Plans are currently in place to improve and create training opportunities, to start a dedicated journal and industry magazine, and to organize regular meetings to advance translational activities.
Overall, Singh hopes to promote the crop microbiome approach globally, leading to improved policy decisions and better support for sustainable farming systems. By touching farming communities affected by these issues and engaging the public on the joint benefits of harnessing natural resources and smart agriculture practices, the initiative aims to make real changes in citizens lives.
"We want to ensure sustainable increases in agriculture productivity without putting further pressure on environmental quality and ecosystem service,” says Singh. The group is starting with a specific focus on five widely grown crops and will gradually expand to include the other major crops grown around the world.