The Great Unknown Below Our Feet

Written by: Melanie Rounsaville

May 14
The Great Unknown Below Our Feet

Over 500 years ago, Leonardo DaVinci observed, “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Five centuries later, as NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft explores beyond our solar system, a galaxy of trillions of soil microbes inches below our feet remains unknown.

As the global population rises each year, so does our concern over how agriculture will be able to close the yield gap. Our land yields must rise 70 to 100 percent by 2050 in order to feed a world of 9 billion people. If every field produced the highest attainable yield, worldwide crop production would only rise by 45 to 70 percent. So what do we do? In the search for an answer, scientists are beginning to look to the dark domain that exists under our feet. In 2012, the American Academy of Microbiology brought together 26 plant-microbe interaction experts to discuss how these microscopic bacteria, fungi, and viruses hold promises of enhancing our agricultural productivity. They reported that one ounce of soil contains 312 billion microorganisms, 98 percent of which remain unknown to us. These invisible plant partners play pivotal roles in the health of plants by increasing the availability of nutrients, enhancing root development, neutralizing toxic compounds in the soil, and aiding in the plant’s resistance to disease, heat, flooding and drought. These microbial communities are just starting to be explored and utilized to improve crop production, what if these invisible organisms hold the key to global food security?

Pat Charlton, European Vice President at Alltech, is leading the crop science conversation at Alltech’s upcoming 30th Annual International Symposium. “While we often tend to focus on climate change or the next great hybrid seed variety, the discussion about the future of crop production should hinge on how we plan to utilize and care for the health of our soils.” Alltech Crop Science is focusing its fermentation research on solutions that enhance both plant and soil health. Microbial inoculants are soil treatments that include beneficial microorganisms such as such as Lactobacillus and Trichoderma, intended to promote plant vigor. These microbes form mutually beneficial relationships with their plant targets — some stimulate plant hormone production or immune systems, some produce antibiotics that deter pests, others facilitate nutrient uptake, and still others enable plants to thrive in environments that would otherwise be too extreme for survival.

A healthy soil agribiome with high levels of organic material and bioavailable minerals is foundational to a crop reaching its fullest genetic potential. Soil health and water field capacity are critical to productivity and increased yields. If rice, wheat and corn account for more than 50 percent of all calories consumed by humans globally and current crop yields require 4,000 gallons of water for just one bushel or corn and 11,000 gallons for one bushel of wheat, it is clear why improved soil health leading to improved yields becomes so important.

Charlton states, “If we are going to feed the predicted population of 9 billion people, we have to start asking the right questions and being innovative in our search for new technologies. Utilizing drones to manage our land, farming in non-traditional spaces, tackling mycotoxin management in the field, and studying Nutrigenomics to understand a plant’s natural defense system are just a few of the topics we will be exploring on May 19th during the Crop Science session.”

This is not a decision to be handed over to the next generation, that will be too late. We need to accelerate our understanding now, to prevent hunger on a catastrophic global scale.

If you’d like to discover more about the future of agriculture and unlocking the potential of our soils, join us at Alltech’s 30th Annual International Symposium coming up May 18-21 in Lexington, Kentucky. To register for Alltech’s 30th Annual International Symposium, visit Join the Facebook event to receive updates on topics and sessions leading up to the event.

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