Fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds are doing a dance of death that is making it harder for farmers to grow crops without using more fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds. All that “better living through chemistry” is turning farms into barren places unable to support the growth of fruits and vegetables.
Feeding More People
The United Nations predicts the world’s population will increase to nearly 10 million souls by the middle of this century. If so, the farming community will need to grow 70% more food than it does today — a daunting task given the rising cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds combined with the declining productivity of the soil.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is part of the US Department of Energy, are collaborating with partners at the University of Arkansas and Glennoe Farms to find solutions. Their quest includes molecular biology, bio-geochemistry, environmental sensing technologies, and machine learning. That combination has the potential to revolutionize agriculture.
Less Fertilizer And Fewer Pesticides
Researchers see a reduction in the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which will create sustainable farming practices that benefit both the environment and farms. The payoff is enhanced carbon uptake by the soil, which will boost the productivity of the land in both the short and long term.
A key piece of the research is understanding the role of microbes in the health of the soil. “Microbes are a critical component of soil health and productivity,” said scientist Ben Brown. “By understanding how microbes work and modifying the environments where they function, we can eventually engineer microbial communities to enhance soil productivity. What’s more, Berkeley Lab’s research is showing that healthy soils are more resilient to system shocks such as climate change, drought, and insects.”
On a 1,000 acre test farm outside Stuttgart, Arkansas, operated by Glennoe Farms, the researchers are trying to understand more about how soybeans, corn, and rice grow. Drones fly overhead taking hyper-spectral images of the crops, while supercomputers perform genetic sequencing of the microbes found in the soil at various points in the farm. The problem is that industrialized farming practices have depleted the active carbon found in most of the country’s agricultural land. Historically, active carbon was about 10% of farmland. Today, it has dropped to between 1% and 2%.
“Our farmers are dependent on a heavy prescription of genetically modified seeds, fertilizer, chemical herbicides, and pesticides to render a profitable crop,” said Jay McEntire, manager of Glennoe Farms. “For the farmer this dependency raises their input costs and increases their economic risk. For the landowner depleted soils and chemical regimes represent risks for both economic and environmental sustainability.”
Microbes To The Rescue
The scientists at the Berkeley Lab are pursuing a microbial solution. “The good news is, there are lots and lots of microbes that have enzymes called phytases that are capable of resolubilizing inorganic phosphorus,” which is left behind after plants take up what they need during the growing process, according to Ben Brown.
“There are millions of species of microbes per cubic centimeter of soil,” Brown says. “As you approach the plant root and its interior tissues, you go from millions to dozens. So plants do an exceptional job of farming their microbiomes. They release materials, including antimicrobial compounds, to selectively kill undesirable microbes, and they release food to incentivize beneficial microbes. It’s a highly symbiotic and enormously complex interaction, and we understand almost nothing about it.”
Understanding that process is where the drones and supercomputers come in to the picture. Hyper-spectral sensors on the drones are able to detect minute differences in the light reflecting from the fields. “The human eye has only three channels — red, green, and blue,” said Wainwright. “You can see if a leaf looks yellow or green. But with hundreds of channels you can measure carbon and nitrogen content, and you can tell a lot about plant health, plant disease, or leaf chemistry, all of which affect crop yield,” says Haruko Wainwright, an expert in environmental monitoring and estimation methodologies in Berkeley Lab.
“You’re trying to connect events at timescales relevant to molecules to events that occur over the course of a six-month growing season,” says Brown. “You’re trying to bridge something like 18 orders of magnitude across spatio-temporal scales. That is seriously nontrivial.”
Machine learning will tie all the data together. “The team science approach pioneered at Berkeley Lab is being put to use to integrate all the information within the machine learning context,” says Wainwright. “Our ultimate goal is to provide actionable intelligence to the farming community.” It’s an enormous challenge but one Ben Brown thinks can be met. “We think it’s a tractable problem, and we’re hoping to prove it in the next year,” he says.
Why Public Research?
This is where the research highlights the benefit of public funding and research, which is something the current crop of political leaders in the United States is vehemently opposed to. Too many job-killing regulations and diversions of precious resources away from holding really big military parades and building walls to keep professional-grade mountain climbers from entering the country with kilos of drugs strapped to their backs.
The kind of data needed to understand what is going on in the soil of working farms is simply unavailable to most farmers. “All the private companies have a big incentive to lock their own data sets, so they can’t be used in conjunction with other data sets,” Wainwright says. “That’s where the public sector, like Berkeley Lab, can step in. We’re not incentivized by profit.” Don’t tell Rick Perry, America’s current Energy Secretary, that the energy department is helping farmers for free. That could be the kiss of death for this program.