Nature could yield best pesticide solution yet

Cabbage loopers, beet army worms, corn rootworms, green peach aphids, spider mites and other crop-eating insects can be a major problem for farmers and their crops. But what if instead of turning to agricultural chemicals to deal with these pesky insects, there was a complete pesticide-free solution?

That may soon be the case, as a recent article explains that pesticide companies are putting their money behind research that is attempting to turn soil microbes into tools that farmers can use to help give their crops a boost. Just as microbes help fight disease in humans, they are showing they can be used in soil as weapons against insects as well as weeds, and help deliver nutrients to plants.

Scientist Pam Marrone, has spent most of her professional life looking for microbial pesticides that she could bring to the agriculture industry and is currently studying several different colonies of microorganisms. She spends her time watching to see if these colonies are successful in killing crop-eating insects and harmful weeds — and she thinks she may have found one.

Discovered in soil from the garden of a Buddhist temple in Japan, it doesn’t harm insects, but it does kill many plants, the article states. This is exciting for Marrone, who thinks it could eventually be a weed-killer that organic farmers can use.

“I can go into a chemical distributor in the Central Valley of California and say, ‘What’s your greatest unmet need?’ and honest to God, this chemical dealer will tell me it’s organic weed control,” she said in the article. “It’s remarkable.”

Marrone is hoping to submit her data to the Environmental Protection Agency later this year, asking for approval to sell this microbe-produced herbicide to farmers. While biopesticides like this have long been popular in small corners of agriculture, like organic farming, now big chemical companies are jumping in as organic farming continues to grow and conventional farmers are under pressure to use fewer toxic chemicals.

Because of this, startup companies researching soil microbes are also popping up in California and are working on identifying different microbes found in hundreds of different soil samples through DNA sequencing. For example, some microbes show up consistently in soil samples from fields that produce bumper harvests of corn.

“When you always find a microbe there when a plant is doing well, there might be something to that,” Matthew Ashby, founder and chief scientist of Taxon Biosciences, said in the article. Maybe those microbes are making corn more productive. Maybe farmers could add those beneficial microbes to their fields, and see an effect, he added.

Only time will tell for Marrone, Ashby and others in the industry, but it is clear that all these companies are betting that the next great tool farmers could use to grow more food may be found in the soil under our feet.

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