Sustainable agriculture and food security under the microscope

Sustainable agriculture and food security under the microscope

February 20, 2018

Sustainable agriculture and food security under the microscope

Bacteria and microorganisms could be one of the solutions to the challenges facing the modern world in tackling food sustainability, malnutrition and pollution from fertilizers. Science is at the service of the Sustainable Development Goals  of the United Nations.

Agriculture is a complex activity whose success depends on the appropriate combination of an array of factors, including climate, technology and the presence of billions of microorganisms living in the soil. Fully understanding soil bacterial communities is a difficult task and, although certainly facilitated by new genome sequencing techniques, still presents challenges for researchers worldwide. One thing seems clear to the scientific community: in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations for 2030, particularly those connected with sustainable agriculture and food security (also meant as food availability to all), some of the winning strategies involve bacteria. 

Special maps for better harvests

Improved knowledge of soil microorganisms is the first step in building agri-food systems with the capacity to feed all the inhabitants of the planet and founded on sustainability. This is the precisely the goal underpinning a special atlas that looks beyond geographical boundaries and describes the microorganisms living in soil, which could turn into invaluable allies for sustainable agriculture and food security. The project was presented in the prestigious Science magazine by an international team of researchers funded by the European Union, among others. 

The authors of the project analyzed soil samples from 237 locations across six continents and 18 countries, and identified around 500 numerically “dominant” bacterial species, which alone account for half of the soil bacterial communities worldwide. 


The bacteria living in soil, they explain, are one of the most numerous and complex groups of microorganisms on the planet, and we still have very little understanding of their diversity and specificity. Understanding these bacteria and their geographical location, the researchers point out, is important for improving soil productivity and crop yields.

Little great friends of sustainability

The scientific community is showing great interest in the microorganisms found in the environment. One major initiative in this respect is the Earth Microbiome Project, an attempt to characterize “microbial diversity” taxonomically and functionally in terms of its benefits to the soil. The scientific literature shows that this interest is more than justified. Bacteria play a key role in the health of ecosystems, affecting life-cycles and the use of essential nutrients, as well as helping plants – with which they frequently co-exist in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. a relationship benefiting both partners) – to grow and defend themselves against external threats posed by other dangerous microorganisms. But bacteria and the substances they produce also help in boosting plant resilience, namely the capacity of plants to adapt to stressful events such as floods, drought – and consequent soil desertification – and, more generally, climate change and human activities. 


Towards a new “green revolution”

As also explained by the BCFN in its publication focusing on models for sustainable agriculture the aim is to be able to meet the food requirements of a constantly growing global population while trying to limit the impact on an ecosystem already under great pressure due to human activities. What is needed, in other words, is to improve crop yields and provide food access to all without foregoing food security

The mid-20th century saw a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity – in the so-called “green revolution” – based on practices involving the massive use of fertilizers, pesticides and water. All these practices have to be changed if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and bacteria may be beneficial in this regard. The over 40,000 species contained in just one milligram of soil make up what is sometimes defined as “agribiome”, and can certainly improve crop production. 

The use of specific bacteria could be key in drastically reducing, or even eliminating, the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus and potassium – two elements required by plants but often scarce and insufficient for modern crop production levels. This is the view of the authors of a study published in Scientific Reports, which elucidates the mechanisms whereby specific root-inhabiting fungi can improve phosphorus uptake. 


The scientists also explain that certain species of bacteria can boost the efficiency of this process even further. All this highlights the potential of a discipline that is only at the early stages but already looks to be very promising. 

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