A bacterial ecosystem quickly restores unproductive soils

Signal of change / A bacterial ecosystem quickly restores unproductive soils

By Gwyneth Marcelo / 17 Jun 2016

How can we replenish soil nutrients lost through years of intensive agriculture? The industrial approach of chemical fertilizer application does not address the underlying problem of a weak soil ecosystem that has become too unhealthy to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. More natural, restorative approaches like composting are challenging at scale, while leaving land fallow can take more than 7 years – too long to leave arable land unproductive and meet the needs of our growing human population.

VRM Biologik believes it has a solution. Using biological soil amendments, the company applies humus and a consortium of bacteria - essential, neglected players in the soil ecosystem – to restore degraded soils. Through bacterial photosynthesis, bacteria capture unwanted organic wastes and use them to build energy and water, and restore carbon to the soil. Tests show that this solution begins to restore soil health immediately, and can completely transform degraded land into productive soil in a maximum of 5 year.

So what?

Just as the human microbiome holds secrets to overall health and wellness, so might earth’s microbiome be instrumental in the overall health of soil ecosystems, and critical for long-term food security. Our growing recognition of the role of overlooked bacteria in soil health could contribute to the restoration of over-farmed lands and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. The bacteria could also help restore carbon to the soil, reducing agricultural GHG emissions.

Other applications of this technology are for pest and disease prevention for animal agriculture, as well as for the industrial cleaning of organic waste. Not only could these applications enable the odourless chicken, pig, and cow farms of the future, but they may permit industrial animal farms to go antibiotic- and cage-free sooner, and with fewer risks. This is timely, as many US meat and egg producers, manufacturers, grocers, and restaurants have recently announced cage-free and antibiotic-free commitments for the early 2020s.

But global deployment of this technology raises ethical questions. Should a private company be allowed to have ownership and rights to an ecosystem (even a bacterial one)? As the bacteria evolve rapidly over generations, will VRM Biologik still have the rights to their new genetic material? How should this type of product be regulated?

Additionally, is it environmentally sustainable to turn any kind of unproductive land into productive land? Perhaps there are soils best left unfit for cultivation. In some environments, the bacteria in VRM’s consortium could be an invasive species that endangers fragile ecosystems and our global biodiversity.

Image credit: Ivars Krutainis / Unsplash

Sources

Channel News Asia (16 Oct 2015) SMU celebrates World Food Day with food recycling project

VRM Biologik Case Studies: http://www.vrmbiologik.com/bioregen/casestudy.pdf

Cage Free Future: http://cagefreefuture.com/wp/commitments/

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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