Microbiological processes are vitally important to almost all stages of the food production process. It has been recognized that enhancing microbiological processes can have a beneficial impact on food production, and may provide the solution to the growing global problem of food insecurity.
Microbiology may provide a sustainable approach to enhancing worldwide food security, an issue of particular urgency given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on exaggerating inequalities in access to sufficient nutrients.
Food security: a growing global issue
An increasing number of countries around the world are facing problems with food security. Alongside elevated competition for land to grow crops and increased urbanization to provide additional homes, growing populations are pushing up prices of key food items. Additionally, weather insecurities and the global pandemic have exacerbated food security issues. The benefits of significant development across decades are being reversed as many countries face growing levels of acute food insecurity.
To resolve this problem, scientists are looking to microbiology. Here, we discuss the most significant ways in which microbiology is being used to boost the quality, quantity, and reliability of crop yields, and how this will address the global issue of food security.
Using microbes to enhance crop yields
Across the developed world, microbial-based solutions for agriculture are emerging as some of the most innovative solutions to the food industry’s most pressing issues. Recent data values the market for such solutions at around £2.3 billion, with millions being invested each year into new microbial-based technologies.
Microbial-based solutions leverage the fact that microbes influence the growth of plants and the soil in which they grow. Research and development into microbe manipulation has demonstrated how scientists can influence microbes to benefit crop yields. This includes improved growth, enhanced resistance to insects, droughts, and other extreme weather conditions.
These microbial-based solutions are considered to be environmentally sustainable methods of improving crops and enhancing yields whilst boosting the resilience of agricultural systems. Evidence shows that some systems can boost crop yields by around 15%, a significant improvement that could translate to millions of tons of extra food produced each year.
As a result, these systems could be a game-changer in terms of creating a sustainable future for the food industry, helping to ensure that enough food can be produced for the growing population. Along with other innovative approaches, microbial-based solutions will likely play a vital role in ensuring future food security across the globe.
The future use of microbiology to improve food security
Currently, the use of microbial-based solutions is limited and is yet to reach its full potential, particularly in developing areas of the world where food security is a more pressing issue. For example, the use of microbial-based solutions in improving agriculture in Africa remains in its infancy, with many opportunities for growth in the future. Developed countries, on the other hand, have been better-positioned to adopt this emerging technology.
The upfront costs of setting up appropriately equipped laboratories to conduct necessary soil microbial research range from $300,000 to $1,000,000.
Such significant upfront costs have acted as a barrier to the adoption of microbial-based solutions in developing nations. Fortunately, this might change. It was recently announced that the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics along with nine African countries would launch an initiative to identify the microbial diversity of soil in Africa. This initiative aspires to uncover the types of microbes required for specific crops and further knowledge on how they influence plant growth. With such data, the upfront costs of setting up microbial-based solutions in Africa may reduce, making them more accessible.
In the coming years, the global agricultural industry is likely to benefit from microbial-based innovations, particularly as they are adopted by the developing world. New products have been launched that promise to increase the nutrient uptake of key food items, such as corn and soy, helping to accelerate the use of microbial-based innovations in the fight against increasing food insecurity.
Microbial-based innovations will need to be adopted alongside other currently developing innovations, such as vertical farming methods, and solutions that address food waste, to ensure food security for future generations.
- Food Security and COVID-19. The World Bank. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/food-security-and-covid-19
- Nature Reviews Microbiology, 2011. Microbiology puts food on the table. 9(12), pp.830-830. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrmicro2701#citeas
- Schlundt, J., Tay, M., Chengcheng, H. and Liwei, C., 2020. Food Security: Microbiological and Chemical Risks. Advanced Sciences and Technologies for Security Applications, pp.231-274. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-23491-1_11