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Credit: Axel Gebauer/Nature Picture Library

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Microbial Farming

Iron and manganese bacterial oxidizers in the mud of a fishpond.

In one gram of soil, a thimble’s worth, there can be up to 10 billion microbial denizens. The bacteria, viruses, nematodes, and fungi in the soil have sweeping potential to address agriculture’s impact on global warming. The possibilities are rooted in microbes’ ability to dramatically reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, while improving crop yields, plant health, and food security.

At present, converting nitrogen to ammonia for fertilizer requires 1.2 percent of the world’s energy use. Much of that nitrogen ends up in the sky as nitrous oxides—a greenhouse gas 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Or it leaches into groundwater and waterways, causing the overgrowth of algae and marine dead zones.

The soil microbiome invites agriculture to do a much better job of getting what is wanted from the land—healthy, tasty, abundant food—by harmonizing farming with the needs of the soil. It comes down to a simple fact: Plants and soil feed upon each other. With a healthy microbiome, soil is rich in carbon and organic matter, requires few if any synthetic fertilizers, and creates healthier plants. Someday, a farmer may drive to the local fertilizer store not to buy fertilizer but to pick up nitrogen-fixing bacteria instead.


soil microbiome…[and] human microbiome: Montgomery, David R., and Anne Biklé. The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

nitrous oxides…[vs.] carbon dioxide: Myhre, Gunnar, Drew Shindell, François-Marie Bréon, William Collins, Jan Fuglestvedt, Jianping Huang, Dorothy Koch et al. “Anthropogenic and natural radiative forcing.” In Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

agriculture…emissions: Gilbert, Natasha. “One-Third of Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come from Agriculture.” Nature. October 31, 2012.

9 billion people in 2050: DESA. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings, and Advance Tables. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2015.

life creates the conditions conducive to life: Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.


Background Sources

Barth, Brian. “Microbes Will Feed the World, or Why Real Farmers Grow Soil, Not Crops.” Modern Farmer. April 22, 2014.

Charles, Dan. “Mighty Farming Microbes: Companies Harness Bacteria to Give Crops a Boost.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. June 12, 2015.

Dance, Amber. “Soil Ecology: What Lies Beneath.” Nature 455 (2008): 724-725.

Gans, Jason, Murray Wolinsky, and John Dunbar. “Computational Improvements Reveal Great Bacterial Diversity and High Metal Toxicity in Soil.” Science 309, no. 5739 (2005): 1387-1390.

Mole, Beth. “Fertilizer Produces Far More Greenhouse Gas Than Expected.” Science News. June 9, 2014.

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p. 200

A gram is 0.035 ounce […].

The process creates emissions from fossil fuel energy generation, and much of that nitrogen ends up in the sky as nitrous oxide […].

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