The future of agriculture may be too small to see. Think microbes

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Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills and this is The World. You've been hearing a lot about climate change on our program recently. That's because what we're doing to our atmosphere and our weather is essentially cooking up problems the likes of which we've never had to deal with before. Combine that with a booming human population, and you've got big challenges ahead. One of them is how to keep feeding all those people. The World's environment editor Peter Thomson is here to talk about a development that might help. Peter, I understand it has to do with microbes, and I want to know what microbes have to do with climate change and feeding the world, but remind us, what is a microbe? Peter Thomson: Well, microbes are lots of things. Basically, they are organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. They include bacteria and fungi. We're gonna need a whole lot of new tools to help keep feeding eight, nine billion people over the next several decades, and we're gonna have to do it in a world of generally much warmer temperatures, a lot more rain in some places, a lot less rain in other places. And we have to do it without repeating the problems of the past, like pollution from pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Hills: So I'm assuming that we're not gonna eat microbes off a plate, but that they're going to be used in somehow to improve or expand the food supply. Thomson: Well, we already do eat microbes. We just don't see them. They're everywhere. But in this case we're talking about using microbes to help grow food more sustainably and more productively. We sent reporter Cynthia Graber out to talk with folks who are working in particularly with fungi to help solve some of the problems that climate change is starting to throw at agriculture. So here's her report. Cynthia Graber: Stick a shovel in the ground and you’ll dig up some soil, maybe a few little rocks and, of course, some roots. Now if you could take those roots inside for a closer look and you’ll see something else as well. Ian Sanders: When you hold this thing up to the light, what you can see is little tiny filaments, like little tiny strands of cotton coming out from the root, and that's the fungus. Graber: Ian Sanders is a geneticist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and he's obsessed with fungi. In particular, a type of fungi that live on the roots of about 80 percent of plants on the planet. Sanders: They help plants to grow. Graber: Their tiny filaments help plants draw water and nutrients to the plant. In return, the plants feed sugars to the fungi. It’s a symbiotic relationship that Sanders says is incredibly important. Sanders: Almost all our food plants naturally form this association with these fungi. Graber: And those species of fungi aren’t alone. There are thousands, maybe millions of kinds of fungi, bacteria and other microbes that help plants in a variety of ways. But their role has been almost invisible to people. And critics say, modern agriculture actively works against it. Rusty Rodriguez: What we’ve done over the last hundred years in agriculture, is to try to take microorganisms out of the picture. Graber: That's Rusty Rodriguez, a microbiologist in Seattle. Rodriguez: And by doing that, by disrupting soil with tillage, by using chemical pesticides, we have greatly altered the agricultural microbiome. Graber: Rodriguez is also obsessed with fungi. And like Ian Sanders, he wants to re-alter the agricultural microbiome. They're both are part of a growing field of researchers and entrepreneurs working to bring microorganisms like fungi back into the agricultural mix, but in a new and targeted way. Sanders is breeding new varieties in the lab. Rodriguez’s company gathers fungi from extreme environments all over the US and cultivates them in their lab and greenhouse. Rodriguez: Quite a bit of tomato, and soybean, corn growing different stages and for different types of experiments. Graber: Rodriguez hopes the microbes he's working with here will help crops like these survive growing climate stresses like droughts and floods, and extreme heat and cold. He's working with different kinds of fungi than Sanders is, but his goal is the same - to find and develop fungi that make agriculture both more productive and more sustainable. Rodriguez plans to release his first two products this year. Sanders work isn't quite ready for prime time. His first fungi field tests are being done in a lush tropical flood plain in Colombia. Colombia is the home of cassava. Its a root crop that's staple for more than a billion people. Sanders and a group of Colombian researchers set up experimental plots here. First, they grew cassava using a new fungal gel. Sanders says they had two goals. Sanders: Significant yield increases and hopefully significant reduction in fertilizer use at the same time. Graber: A year later when they harvested their first crop... Sanders: We were absolutely delighted. Graber: Sanders says the plants grew up to 20 percent more roots. But he says that was just the beginning. The team has since grown cassava with different varieties of fungi Sanders bred in the lab, and he says so far, they've had an even more dramatic impact on the plants growth. Rusty Rodriguez in Seattle shares Sanders bullish view of the future of agricultural fungi and bacteria. Rodriguez: I think that biologics are the next paradigm for agriculture. Graber: Of course, we've heard talk like that before. Think, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and genetically modified crops. They all brought big initial benefits, but also big environmental concerns. So far, there hasn't been much push-back on biologics from environmentalists, but just because something’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. So, both Sanders and Rodriguez say they’re working to make sure the fungi they’re developing won’t bring any unwanted impacts. Rodriguez: You have to know the organisms safe. I never want to be in a situation where I stand up in front of an audience and they ask me that question and I say I don't know. Graber: What Rodriguez does know is that lots of tools will be needed to help produce more food, more sustainably. And Ian Sanders says we've been standing on some of those tools all along. Sanders: Sometimes people imagine that you have to go to unexplored wilderness to find something completely new, but we just have to look in the soil that’s below our feet. Graber: For The World, I'm Cynthia Graber. Hills: Okay, our environment editor Peter Thomson is still with us. And Peter, what's your take on this kind of research into agricultural microbes? Thomson: Well, I think it has a lot of promise, but like Cynthia said, we've been down similar roads before in terms of sort of promised miracle fixes. So I think as a global society we've got to be really careful. I'd actually love to hear what our listeners think. So I want to encourage folks to go to our website, that's pri.org, click on the page for this story and leave your comments at the bottom. Is this something we should pursue? Give us a shout - pri.org. Hills: The World's environment editor, Peter Thomson. Thanks for coming in. Thomson: Thanks Carol.