18 July 2022

Soil and microbiota: towards agricultural ecologization

María José Lis Cupeiro, Marketing Director of Futureco Bioscience, responded to an interview conducted by Revista Agricultura in the article “Green innovation for sustainable soil improvement”. Next, the full article about the current situation, benefits and advances of biostimulation applied to soil and microbiome management.

What differentiates biostimulants from other agricultural technical means? And in terms of soil conservation?

A biostimulant is an essential technical product that acts on concrete and specific conditions, designed for particular plant requirements. Its objective is to boost plant development, enhance plant growth and increase production, achieving optimum crop quality and yield. Biostimulants differ from other technical media in their mechanism of action: they stimulate the efficient use of nutrients, regardless of the amount of nutrients present in the medium. They increase the availability, translocation, metabolism and distribution of nutrients, enhancing the root system or solubilizing them, improve water retention capacity and chlorophyll production.

As for soil conservation, there are two aspects: on the one hand, the biostimulants focused on improving the soil in a direct way that contribute to regenerate the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the soil. On the other hand, they act in an indirect way: they improve not only the biology of the plants, but also favor the development of a robust root system that, in close relationship with the soil, will also improve the physical, chemical and biological soil conditions.

What are the benefits of enhancing microbiota for agriculture?

Microorganisms are essential for maintaining soil fertility. In fact, soils lacking microbial flora are poor, unbalanced and require a constant and disproportionate supply of synthetic fertilizers. However, microbiota and soil, in general, have been the great overlooked elements of modern intensive agriculture. This has generated important environmental problems due to the misuse of resources, as well as unnecessary economic costs.

Enhancing the microbiota means producing in a more sustainable and respectful way ensuring the continuity of farms, and, at the same time, with lower consumption of inputs and less risk of suffering from pests and diseases. This is why the use of products that promote the maintenance or even the recovery of the microbiota has become a fact.

Does the use of biostimulants that regenerate the soil imply changes in the planning and organization of the agricultural campaign?

No, they adapt completely to the needs of the agricultural campaigns, they are compatible with other products (chemical or biological) and they usually work together with the regular practices. The only thing to take into account would be that, by improving the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the plant and exploiting all the natural potential of the soil, as well as optimizing the use of inputs, the planning of the campaign may need to be adapted to a production increase.

In which crops is the market for biostimulants that regenerate the soil growing?

Generally speaking, in all crops. In the past, biostimulants that regenerate the soil were only used in extreme situations, when the plant was very demanding or in soils where “regeneration” was really needed. However, it could be said that biostimulants have now been “democratized” and are now seen not so much as regenerators, but as tools to optimize farms without developing imbalances. They are more about products to maintain, compensate and enhance soil characteristics. For example, many growers routinely use biostimulants to reduce transplant shock in annual fruits and vegetables. This is already a common practice for transplanted crops. Furthermore, biostimulants applied to seed treatments are becoming more and more common in field crops.

In fact, the democratization of biostimulants, particularly those aimed at soil improvement, has led these tools to reach also crops where the added value is not so high, such as cereals and legumes, and other extensive crops where small changes in soil management with biostimulants have shown large changes in quality and yield.

Do you think farmers are convinced of the usefulness of their use? Why?

The biostimulants market size has been valued at $3.2 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 12.1% to reach $5.6 billion in 2026. So yes, farmers are becoming more technically skilled, have regained their attention towards soil as they know its importance as a natural medium for plant growth and are more convinced of the benefit it brings them at the level of profitability in the short term, as well as farm sustainability in the medium/long term.

Agricultural and food production systems around the world are facing unprecedented challenges from the increasing demand for food for a growing population, rising hunger and malnutrition, adverse effects of climate change, overexploitation of natural resources, detriment to biodiversity, and food loss and waste. There is an increased demand for sustainably produced food, with a lower concentration of synthetic chemicals and a higher concentration of biological products. Hence, biostimulants help to solve this problem in a sustainable way, as they provide protection against stress and thus stimulate plant growth.

The result is a more environmentally friendly production, which fits in with the objectives of the European Green Pact – is this an opportunity for biostimulants?

Political and governmental support for more sustainable agricultural technologies is certainly driving the biostimulant market: the “Farm to fork” strategy, which has set targets such as reducing fertilizer use by at least 20% by 2030, is at the heart of the European Union’s Green Deal and is a clear example that support for biostimulants is bound to gain ground and will continue to push the sector.

Are we facing a “revolution” in agriculture?

There is no doubt that we are moving towards an “ECOLOGIZATION” of agriculture. On the one hand, all stakeholders are moving towards a new, more holistic approach to agriculture. Not only the immediate result is taken into account, but other aspects that include a long-term view, such as soil preservation: a way to ensure the continuity of agriculture in the face of global changing situations such as climate change.

On the other hand, growing criticism of intensive agricultural practices that lead to a deterioration of natural resources and a decrease in biodiversity has led to the progressive imposition of more environmental restrictions on agricultural activities through agricultural policies that seek to reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides, improve the quality of soil health and develop and promote the use of organic practices.

How do you rate all the innovation and research around agricultural soil improvement? What stands out?

Vital and essential. Soil is one of the most diverse habitats on Earth and one of the largest carbon stores on the planet. Healthy soil is crucial for agricultural production, water supply and a stable climate. Unfortunately, we are in a particularly problematic situation and agricultural production, which depends on healthy and fertile soils, will have to change radically between now and 2050 if we are to continue to feed, recharge and clothe the world’s population.

In terms of innovation, I would like to highlight the possibilities that have been opened up by being able to study the soil microbiome through the integration of the biological component into soil management practices. It is finally possible, thanks to soil metagenomics and bioinformatics advances, to study microbial communities at a very fine resolution and to assess their functionalities through holistic strategies. Soil microbiome-based approaches have immense potential to offer a sustainable strategy for improving soil and plant health by replicating their natural microbial community and exerting minimal disruption to the ecological balance between soil and plant microbes.

Soil and microbiota: towards agricultural ecologization

Can agriculture have an expiration date if the soil is not conserved (i.e., is there a worsening of the situation of agricultural soils if no action is taken for their regeneration and conservation, could agriculture have no future?)

Yes, I think the trend is clear: climate change, overexploitation of soils and poor cultural practices have led us to the situation of degradation that many of our soils are suffering. Different reports indicate that 33% of the earth’s soils are in a situation of moderate or high degradation, which seriously compromises food production and, therefore, favors price volatility. Erosion, depletion, loss of organic carbon and structure of our soils justify the need to work on their conservation and regeneration.

Futureco Bioscience, aware of the need to reverse this situation, has developed tools that facilitate this work to farmers. Genomaat applies advanced diagnostic technologies, such as soil metagenomic analysis. Based on these results, it provides ad-hoc recommendations of microbial solutions to recover the soil balance and keep it in an optimal situation from a productive and environmental point of view. This results in an efficient and sustainable productive system, which contributes to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and improves their capture and retention, contributing to climate regulation.

Soil and microbiota: towards agricultural ecologization