Urbana, Illinois, USA — Around the world, commercial fertilizer prices are soaring, pushing farmers and countries into a frenzy. In addition, soaring fertilizer prices are sparking fears of inflation, food supply shortages and food insecurity. There are several reasons that have contributed to the rising fertilizer prices including the Russian-Ukrainian war and the global pandemic.
To avert the ongoing fertilizer crisis, farmers in developed and developing countries alike, could turn into other alternative products such as microbial inoculants. Derived from naturally occurring microorganisms, including the billions of beneficial bacteria that teem in the soil near plant roots, microbial inoculants offer the same benefits as chemical fertilizers while reducing agricultural systems environmental footprint.
Moreover, scientific evidence, generated over the years including through both long-term studies and short-term studies have shown that these microbes when applied directly to seeds can improve the crop growth, nutrition, and productivity. As an example, a 10-year long-term field study carried out in Germany showed that beneficial microbes increase maize plant growth and the availability of phosphorous – and essential plant nutrient – in the soil. In Italy, beneficial soil microbes improved tomato yields.
Due to their popularity, microbial inoculants are currently valued at $12.9 billion. Complementing their popularity is the proliferation in the number of start-ups and companies developing and commercializing microbial products. These include AgBiome, Indigo, Novozymes, Corteva, BASF, and Bayer.
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What’s more is that these microbes can provide other benefits to plants including helping them to tolerate drought and hot temperatures that have increasingly become common with climate change. Further, they can increase plant defenses against crop damaging insects. These products also offer environmentally sustainable integrated crop management.
Cost wise, in the US, for example, microbial inoculants are relatively priced, from $30 – $100 per gallon.
Of course, there remains a few challenges including the often-cited inconsistent results and concerns that these products could eventually become invasive.
As fertilizer prices keep escalating, we must invest in understanding and harnessing these naturally occurring microbes to improve crop productivity.
Just like we are investing in producing fertilizers, there is need to invest in science that is aimed at understanding beneficial soil microbes and the mechanisms that underpin microbe facilitated crop growth improvement.
Microbial inoculants could be the next sustainable tools for breaking the dependence on fertilizers.
dr Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and a Senior Food Security Fellow with the Aspen Institute, New Voices.