“Digital agriculture” aims to reduce emissions and toxic runoff

A climate revolution is beginning to take root in the agriculture industry.

And it’s all because of a growing interest in synthetic microbes.

Advocates say these specially designed microbes – when applied to seeds or fields – can help corn, wheat and rice get more nitrogen from the air. That means farmers won’t have to use as much chemical fertilizer.

The climate potential is significant. Proponents say that if farmers start using these microbes widely, it could reduce the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent. As a bonus, the synthetic microbes could also reduce farmland water pollution.

That’s a big deal for aquatic life. When nitrogen fertilizers wash into streams and rivers, they create toxic “dead zones.” One the size of New Jersey is lingering in the Gulf of Mexico.

At this point, these goals are largely ambitious.

But some powerful players in the business and technology world have taken some serious steps in recent years to get the idea to this point.

In 2017, serious financial dealings and deals began. One of the world’s biggest agricultural companies, Germany’s Bayer, bought U.S. company Monsanto in August 2018 for $66 billion. genetically altering crops.

It was also based on another agreement Bayer had struck six months earlier. That was to be a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, a startup created in Boston by biologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ginkgo executives sometimes describe the result as “Microsoft Synthetic Biology.” Its goal is to create synthetic microbes the way computer scientists develop software. Notably, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, was among the investors who helped fund Ginkgo.

Bayer set up a $100 million joint venture with Ginkgo to create a new company called Joyn Bio. Werner Baumann, Bayer’s CEO, once called the new technology “digital agriculture.”

Joyn Bio’s first goal is to create microbes that will help corn, wheat and rice get half their nitrogen fertilizer from the air. Not only will this reduce water and air pollution, but it will also reduce fertilizer costs for farmers when they plant.

Currently, there are financial and high-tech plans for an agricultural revolution based on something less than the human eye can see.

But the next step, according to Mike Mille, CEO of Joyn Bio, will be harder: convincing farmers who have been using and often abusing chemical fertilizers for more than 100 years to change their habits.

Michael Mille, CEO of Joyn Bio, produces synthetic microbes to reduce emissions in agricultural fields.| Food Edge

“They’re just fundamentally unsustainable,” Millais said in a recent interview, referring to current practices. Although chemical fertilizer farmers have fed the world for a century, he noted, the climate-changing emissions they’ve caused and the “huge runoff problems” now pose serious public health problems.

“So, our whole approach is to replicate nature. Some plants in nature, like soybeans and legumes like peanuts, have evolved with microbes that actually fix nitrogen from the air and turn it into nitrogen that can be used by plants. So they don’t need fertilizer,” he said.

Joyn Bio’s approach is to develop and produce synthetic microbes that will perform the same function for corn, rice and wheat plants within three to four years. He predicts that one type of microbe created will initially provide enough nitrogen to reduce a farmer’s need for chemical fertilizers by 50 percent.

The tiny microbes could be delivered as part of a seed coating or thrown into fields mixed with reduced needs for conventional fertilizer, he said.

The second microbe would be designed to capture carbon dioxide emissions from plants and retain them “in the soil for decades or longer.”

Mille acknowledged that both steps would require Joyn Bio to develop ways to measure and prove how much they reduce emissions. This would allow farmers and people who own farmland to demonstrate the improvements they have made.

“There’s a government component to this,” he explained, “which is to incentivize producers and make it meaningful. Yes, producers can get money and incentives to actually sequester carbon and reduce nitrogen. That would help incentivize those investments and those behaviors.”

“I think it all has to happen for change to happen, but at this point it’s all doable,” he concluded.

It helps that there are incentives to reduce water pollution, and that President Biden proposed creating a federal “carbon bank” during his campaign to help farmers and others reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Solving climate change will require changes in many key industries around the world, Millais said. “But agriculture needs innovative solutions just as much as anyone else,” he said.

“These guys [farmers] are trying to make a profit, run a business and feed the world. These are huge challenges,” he said. “These changes are happening faster and in unexpected places as the climate changes. So if you’re a scientist, this is a great place to live. There’s a lot you can do and a lot more to do.”

“We call it a target-rich environment,” he added.

Ann Bartuska, a biologist and senior advisor at the Washington-based nonprofit Resources for the Future, said she was “intrigued” by the potential of synthetic microbes. She described it as one of two “holy grail” ideas that have been the focus of agricultural research for the past 10 years as partial solutions to climate change.

The other idea, genetic manipulation, would turn crops like corn into perennial plants that do not require replanting and strong fertilizers. But this approach is still in the laboratory stage.

Bartuska, a former deputy undersecretary for research at the Department of Agriculture, is concerned that unbiased experts will have to show farmers how to use high-tech methods and learn how such methods can be measured if they are carefully applied.

Farmers’ current sources of information about new technologies, she added, are often bank consultants or fertilizer salesmen “who make money off them.”

According to Peter Woodbury, a senior agricultural researcher at Cornell University, if the country’s future path to agriculture is to achieve zero emissions, that would be “a pretty ambitious goal.” “It requires a comprehensive approach to kitchen sinks,” he said.

Woodbury believes more farmers could be attracted to low-emission solutions through “yield competitions” on demonstration farms that would show which process works best and the costs involved. In the case of synthetic microbes, which reduce fertilizer costs but produce the same yields, he added, it’s not rocket science. “It’s a win,” he said.

Solar geoengineering

There are other scientists who aspire to much more ambitious victories. Their technology is literally superior.

For example, there is solar geoengineering: seeding clouds to make them brighter, or spreading harmless aerosols into the stratosphere. The goal is to artificially shade and cool the Earth and its crops by reflecting sunlight as volcanoes erupt as they orbit the Earth.

A recent study published by scientists from Harvard University, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and research centers in Norway, China and South Korea used computer models to conclude that such methods would have a “strong cooling effect” that would benefit many. crops and also increase moisture levels.

“It’s vital to know what we can expect from crop yields as the climate changes,” said Danica Lombardozzi, a co-author at NCAR. “Solar geoengineering cannot restore our atmosphere to its natural state, but this study shows that it can be an important tool to help feed society if greenhouse gas emissions continue.”

The paper says food risks will increase if governments abandon proposals to reduce global emissions while the population grows.

“Policymakers need to think about how emission reductions can be complemented by specific local adaptations to help farmers reduce climate impacts on agriculture, as well as global actions like carbon removal and solar engineering,” said David Keith, professor of public policy at Harvard University. Kennedy, another co-author.

The research for this paper was supported in part by Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer, once called his company’s agricultural businesses “digital agriculture.