Is the plant microbiome a key to higher yielding, healthier food crops?
The discovery of the human microbiome has revealed the importance of beneficial bacteria and microbes to health and disease prevention. The same is true for plants, and a new company is working to optimize the microbiome of food plants. Indigo Ag has developed a technology—without the use of genetic engineering—that aims to enhance plant growth and resistance to disease and pests.
Identify beneficial microbes and add them back to crops
Since 2014, scientists at Indigo Ag have conducted extensive research and development studying the microbiomes of different food plants.
“We have studied hundreds of plant species’ microbiomes to understand the interactions taking place at the microscopic level,” says Ben Allen, Indigo Ag’s head of food and fiber. “We realized, through these studies, that the microbiome is central to a plant’s biology and health, a protective entity that helps to combat drought, heat, salt, cold, and pathogen stress.”
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers can reduce the number of beneficial microbes in plant microbiomes in the same way that antibiotics can reduce beneficial bacteria in the human microbiome.
Identifying these missing beneficial microbes and adding them back to crops is the core of what we do; essentially adding back what nature intended to be there all along,” states David Perry, Indigo Ag’s CEO, in a blog on the company’s website.
Indigo Ag adds beneficial microbes back to crops by producing coatings for seeds of major row crops such as corn, cotton, soybeans, rice, and wheat. By contrast, conventional row crop seeds are commonly coated with insecticides such as bee-harming neonicotinoids. The seed coatings provide a path for the microbes to return to their native habitat. When the seed germinates, the microbes found in the seed coating colonize the plant and multiply.
Allen says the microbes stimulate the plant’s natural defenses to withstand pests and disease and enhance the plant’s ability to take up nutrients from the soil. He says this reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“Our CEO, David Perry, commented on the potential of the plant microbiome, saying that he believes that microbiome technologies have the potential to replace up to 90 percent of chemical insecticide and fungicide use, and 50 percent of synthetic fertilizer use,” Allen says.
The microbial seed treatments work synergistically with naturally-occurring microbes found in the soil.
“Plants with our microbial seed treatment have shown longer and more complicated root structures, improving the plants’ ability to take up nutrients from the soil, and with those nutrients, the microbes in the soil,” Allen says.
Other “real-world results,” according to Allen, include earlier plant vigor, and greater stress tolerance and yields. In 2018, Indigo Ag contracted 40,000 acres of wheat production using its microbial seed treatment, and these produced yield gains of 12.7 percent compared to neighboring fields. Microbial-treated cotton increased yields by an average of 14 percent in full-scale commercial trials in Texas.
Indigo works with seed companies to source the seeds that are coated with its microbial technology. The technology can be applied to non-GMO and organic seeds, as well as genetically modified corn, soybeans, and cotton.
According to Allen, cutting-edge technology is involved in all steps of Indigo Ag’s process to develop the microbial seed treatments—from sourcing plants, to sequencing their components, and applying the seed treatments. Indigo Ag uses liquid and solid-state fermentation technology to generate the seed treatments. The process does not involve any type of genetic engineering.
In fact, Indigo Ag’s seed treatment for corn is approved for organic production by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), a non-profit organization that reviews products intended for use in certified organic production and processing. Indigo plans to have more of their seed treatments OMRI certified.
“We intend to certify microbial treatments across crops, such that growers also have the option to produce certified organic soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, along with corn,” Allen says.
In March, Indigo Ag announced a partnership with Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s leading brewer, focusing on sustainable rice production. Indigo has committed to delivering 2.2 million bushels of Indigo Rice™ to Anheuser-Busch that will reduce water and nitrogen use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Indigo Ag’s technology is gaining recognition. The company was recently named to Fast Company’s World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies 2019 list, coming in at #35.
Indigo Ag is one of a growing number of companies that are conducting research on the plant microbiome and developing products to enhance agricultural production.
Newer companies such as BioConsortia and New Leaf Symbiotics are developing microbial-based products that aim to increase nutrient uptake, strengthen plants, and increase yields. Marrone Bio Innovations produces and sells organically approved microbial-based biopesticides. Large biotechnology companies such as Bayer Crop Science and Dow/Dupont are also developing biopesticides.
Marketplace aims to connect farmers and grain buyers
Beyond its seed treatments, Indigo Ag aims to be a full service provider to farmers. “We believe that a lucrative growing season does not stop with the transaction and planting around a seed, but holistic services, technologies, and programs to enable their best growing season,” Allen says.
The company’s Indigo Marketplace aims to streamline the purchase and sale of grain for growers and buyers by establishing a direct connection between the two. Growers can upload specific quality characteristics and practices used to grow their crops to the marketplace’s online platform. Buyers can access identity preserved crops that meet their specifications. According to Allen, there have been more than $10 billion worth of bushels and $5 billion worth of bids submitted to Indigo Marketplace.
Mark Hudson, owner of Majestic Milling in Cassville, Missouri, has submitted offers to buy grains for his non-GMO feed mill on Indigo Marketplace.
Though he hasn’t gotten any sales yet, he sees potential with the marketplace.
“It looks like a great national and possibly international database to connect supplier and growers with end users such as feed mills. It helps to give us a transparent supply chain.”
Last November, Indigo Ag launched a program that certifies independent agronomists to service acres grown with Indigo’s microbial-treated seeds.
For the 2019 growing season Indigo Ag introduced Indigo Certified Crops, a program for farmers that includes Indigo’s microbial-treated seeds, grain quality testing, and agronomic support, with the opportunity to opt into Indigo Marketplace, and the company’s grain storage and transportation programs.
Indigo Ag’s goals are ambitious but questions remain. Will there be pushback from conventional agriculture, which is still based on chemical fertilizers and pesticides? Will conventional farmers go against the grain and adopt Indigo Ag’s technologies when many have long-established relationships with seed dealers and chemical input providers? Will organic farmers who work with nature see Indigo Ag’s seed treatments as another technology “fix” like genetic engineering and reject their technology? Time will tell how successful Indigo Ag will be.
Ultimately, Indigo Ag aims to deliver benefits to consumers.
Indigo seeks to improve grower profitability and environmental sustainability while delivering healthy food to consumers,” Allen says.
Healthier food could mean a healthier human microbiome.