Research shows that most organisms rely on an ecosystem of living bacteria to thrive, but what about plants? If you assume that plants need healthy bacteria to grow, then what effect would probiotics have on crops?
That is a question that a startup company called Indigo thinks it may have answered. This Boston-based AgTech (Agricultural Technology) group is harnessing nature to optimize the health of critical crops. Welcome to the world of probiotic-covered seeds.
Probiotic-covered seeds are a product created by Indigo. The goal is to use the power of microbes to allow plants to thrive in areas that might not support them otherwise. The first trial of this concept involves Indigo Cotton, a microbe-enhanced seed made by the Boston company.
Indigo studied hundreds of plant species trying to figure out what was missing from the soil that might improve the yield of crops like cotton or wheat. To do this, they researched heritage plants and the microbes found in them. Based on that information, Indigo developed a seed coating representative of the microbiome found in the heritage plants, essentially, giving them back what centuries of erosion has taken away.
This is very similar to the concept of probiotics in humans. By taking a probiotic supplement or eating probiotic-enhanced foods, you are seeding your gut with bacteria found in a healthy individual. Although more studies are needed to prove the effectiveness of probiotics, there is research to support their use to reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses and progressive diseases.
Indigo states that their microbe-covered product yields 10 percent more crops than traditional seeds. To prove their theory, they have planted 50,000 acres in Texas and surrounding states with Indigo Cotton. CEO David Perry expects the cotton crop to match what they have seen in earlier tests – 10 percent better yield.
The company states that their cotton crops are already showing signs of improvement compared to cotton plants not seeded with bacteria. The stem diameters and root mass are more impressive in the Indigo Cotton. This is a good indicator on how well the plants can survive in less than perfect environments. A plant with a strong stem and root mass will be naturally more resilient and better able to manage water stress – meaning that these plants may grow well in drought areas like California.
Agricultural water use is a growing concern in many areas of the world. It is estimated that farmers consume around 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water supply. If that trend continues, fresh water could become a difficult commodity to acquire. The World Economic Forum is already calling water shortage a global risk and one of the biggest threats this planet is facing.
This problem is not limited to underdeveloped countries, either. In 2014, California governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency due to drought conditions. Today, it is considered a national emergency, one that threatens both the country’s economy and ecosystem. The microbes contained in the seed coating may make water less of an issue.
The goal here is not just the improvement of one group of crops. Plant microbiomes have eroded from years of heat, drought and chemical pollutants. The probiotic-covered seeds have the potential to improve the soil, enhancing the microbiome of future plants, as well. With each planting, the seeds may deposit life-saving bacteria into the soil, enriching it and returning the land to health.
The microbes in the seeds work with the environment to fight disease and enrich the soil while enhancing the plant’s ability to utilize the nutrients and use the available water efficiently. The company is able to focus the probiotic distribution on creating seed coverings specific for the area, as well. Regions that have nutrient stress would use one formula while those prone to insect infestations can benefit from another design. Indigo is currently focusing on water efficiency because water use is such a global problem. David Perry explains water is a problem that every farmer faces and probiotics offer a sustainable solution that is not available through technology or chemistry.
Through probiotic-seed coatings, Indigo hopes to create a healthier agriculture and influence future growth cycles. The goal is to use crops to nourish the environment, instead of destroying it, so California and other drought-affected regions can flourish once again.
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