COMMENT: Anthony Finbow of Eagle Genomics argues that understanding how to restore soil’s ability to capture carbon would unleash a wave of innovation to combat global warming
An over-reliance on nitrogen is having a profound and damaging impact on the soil’s ability to store carbon by depleting its microbial density. It turns out that the practices over the last 100 years, which centred on using fertiliser to optimise nitrogen in plants, have decimated the soil. This has had a profound and damaging impact on the soil’s ability to capture carbon.
Some scientists fear there are only 60 harvests left in the soil. This is because they're so denuded and depleted and unable to support plants to grow effectively in them. The encouraging news is that if we replenish the microbial universe, we will improve the ground’s ability to capture and retain carbon. In consequence, nature will be able to reverse climate change – and in as little as 30 years, it’s hoped – and the soil will become productive again.
Governments are starting to hear the alarm bells climate campaigners are ringing. The international initiative "4 per 1000" is one that shows how important a role soil plays where food security and climate change are concerned.
The food industry 'has not even scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the microbiome'
The issue has come into sharper public focus as well: the Kiss the Ground not-for-profit has released a critically lauded eco-documentary for US schoolchildren. Featuring Hollywood star Woody Harrelson, Kiss the Ground reveals how by regenerating the world’s soils we can rapidly stabilise the earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems, and create abundant food supplies. The film illustrates how soil is the missing piece of the climate puzzle, and the key to the soil’s biology is the microbiome. Understanding the microbiome is vital to helping us understand and to solve these challenges. It will also enable enterprises to innovate based on their understanding of the microbiome as the centre of this revolution.
We actually know very little about the hidden universe of the soil, the microbes and the various other organisms that call it home; a mere 1% has been characterised scientifically so far. What we do know is that trees capture carbon by capturing carbon monoxide, then transmit the carbon through a chain of microbes, fixing it in the soil. And unless we focus on these helper microbial communities, we are not going to be able to reverse the climate crisis.
Claudia Roessler, director of agriculture strategic partnerships at Azure Global, which is owned by Microsoft, recently said that the food industry “has not even scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the microbiome”, but that once it has, we can expect a wave of innovation as more is discovered about the interplay of microbes and foods, their impact on human and animal health, as well as establishing what specific soil conditions will drive even better but safer crop yield.
What’s helping us understand these processes is technology that is able to combine and cross-analyse a lot of different biological data and reliably interpret any correlations. There are still some practical hurdles to overcome, especially around data standardisation. However, modern data management and networking technologies, such as graph databases and AI-based analytics, are allowing everyone, from climate change scientists to soil experts and agri-manufacturers, to benefit from meaningful microbiome-based knowledge discovery and analytics.
Modern data-management technologies enable access to complex, multi-dimensional data, as well as the exploration of networks of relationships not detectable by humans alone. It enables scientists to better understand more about the microbes and interactions in environments, but to innovate as well, finding new microbiome answers that could address these existential challenges of climate change and food production.
All this makes truly sustainable farming that much more imminent. It also nudges the global economy towards a secure and sustainable solution to feeding future populations, while heading off the existential challenge of climate change. We're seeing pioneering organisations, such as Boston-based Joyn Bio, engineering microbes to fix more nitrogen to plant roots to encourage safer soil usage. We may soon have practical alternatives to those non-biodegradable plastics that are the scourge of our oceans.
Headway is being made by scientists in the application of plant microbiomes for increasing crop yields and improving salt and drought tolerance of crops
Enterprises, such as California-headquartered Zymergen, are developing hard-printed circuit board material that has been manufactured through bioprocesses to remain stable through its life; it degrades rapidly and appropriately after end of life, cutting pollution.
Meanwhile, headway is being made by scientists in the application of plant microbiomes for increasing crop yields and improving salt and drought tolerance of crops. Soil microbiomes can also be applied as bio-fertilisers for soils, and can reduce nitrogen leaching.
All these microbiome-powered projects prove that the 21st century’s third decade is nursing a new green, biome-driven agricultural revolution that will help all of us – and especially our battered planetary home.
Anthony Finbow is chief executive officer at UK-based Eagle Genomics Ltd, which is working with five of the biggest 10 household and personal care companies in the world to create and launch new products which work in harmony with the human and ecological microbiome. www.eaglegenomics.com
sustainable agriculture soil sequestration nitrogen 4 per 1000 Kiss the Ground microbiome fertiliser crop yields