These ancient beans could help avoid a global food crisis
There is a worry our world's crops are slowly dying. This is due to the current generation of crops that steal nutrients from the soil and never give much back. However, this catastrophe could be averted thanks to the work of Dutch microbiologist Jos Raaijmakers and his colleagues.
In 2011, Raaijmakers was investigating a study that even the most intellectual of us would probably yawn at. Jos was inspecting the inner workings of beans.
What did he find?
Raaijmakers and his team collected soil samples from wild bean roots and took pictures of the flourishing community of microbes and fungi that lived there. What they found from their footage was astonishing.
The team found wild beans had a different group of microorganisms clinging to their roots compared to their common descendants, even if they were planted in the same soil.
How does this solve our problem?
Thanks to scientific advances, we are just beginning to understand the diverse ecosystem in our soil, with organisms that feed off each other like bacteria, fungi, nematodes and earthworms.
50% of the world's habitable land is used for agriculture
Arable crops (crops used for growing vegetables) are diminishing at an alarming rate. Our soil is constantly being robbed of its rich nutrients by either over irrigation or modern day plants that take all the nutrients from the soil.
With the global population set to reach over eight billion by 2030, we need to think of a way to provide sustainable resources for the next generations. The rapidly growing population adds a lot of demand to the world's dying crops, and with the use of pesticide, fewer arable crops are now reusable.
Long story short: we need a solution.
What Raaijmakers and his colleagues intend to do is reintroduce beneficial ancient plant traits that were lost over thousands of years of selective breeding. This will hopefully add the vital nutrients we need.
Currently, Raaijmakers is experimenting with microbes for wild varieties of potato crops and sorghum in field trials across Colombia, Ethiopia and The Netherlands.
Is there really a problem with our soil?
There is a problem, but this doesn't mean you should panic buy carrots on your next weekly shop. Raaijmaker's colleague, Wim van der Putten, also has the view that our soil is in desperate need of some help. “Soils are a thing that you can only use once,” he says.
It takes more than a century to naturally form one centimetre of topsoil, which is the uppermost layer of soil that contains most of the nutrients needed for plant growth. However, modern farming is unravelling mother nature's work, with industrial processes such as tilling and monocropping.
These processes weaken the soil and make it more susceptible to being washed or blown away by rain or wind, which takes away the valuable nutrients.
A farmer using his tractor for tilling
Soil is also the world's largest C02 store. The earth's soil contains more C02 than all the trees and atmosphere put together. Cracking open the soil layers and urbanising areas contributes towards global warming.
Are we ever going to see this implemented?
The study is still in progress and it involves studying “mid-successional” species – or plants that sprout up after mosses, lichens and grasses have established themselves. Through this, Raaijmakers and his team can isolate the roots and use their method to see if it can be implemented.
A sorghum crop in Ethiopia
The study that has progressed furthest is their sorghum crop which grows in Ethiopia. This operation is a major cereal crop popular in the developing world. The project is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The aim of the project is to try to see if there is a way to defeat witchweed, a parasitic purple plant that decimates sorghum harvests. “It’s too early to be optimistic at this stage,” says Raaijmakers.
It will take a while to find a solution. Crop trials can last up to a decade, and this will be followed by a tedious breeding process, and a long regulatory process. Raaijmakers and Van der Putten say it could take up to 40 years before any new crops are sown.