By using biofertilizers on 80% of their planted area, Brazilian soybean farmers are reaping the environmental and economic benefits of using the microbiome instead of chemical fertilizers. The microbiome is the community of fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms in a given environment. In agriculture, it provides nutrients needed by crops and increases yields. Its use has many economic and environmental advantages.
The case of Brazilian soybeans is one of 14 success stories discussed in a review article on the impact of microbiome research on sectors such as agriculture, fermented foods and human health. Published in Frontiers in Microbiology, it was undertaken as part of MicrobiomeSupport, a project funded by the European Union under its Horizon 2020 program to map global microbiome research, focusing on innovation in the food system.
The project involves scientists and companies from 28 countries, including the Genomics Research Center for Climate Change (GCCRC), one of the Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) supported by FAPESP. The GCCRC is a partnership with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).
“Brazil is one of the few countries in the world to successfully use biofertilizers in the cultivation of soybeans. It is the largest producer and exporter of the commodity. Microorganisms are applied to fix nitrogen on 80% of the areas planted with soybeans in Brazil. The positive environmental impact is very important. Carbon emissions to the atmosphere are approximately 430 million tons of CO2 lower equivalent due to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also protects springs and other sources of fresh water as chemical nitrogen contaminates rivers,” said Rafael de Souza, co-author of the paper. He is a researcher at the GCCRC and founder of Symbiomics, a Brazilian biotech startup that develops next-generation biologics.
The application of microorganisms to soil also has a significant economic impact. “The war in Ukraine has shown how dependent we are on imported chemical fertilizers,” Souza said. “Brazil imports about 77% of the nitrogen used to fertilize its agricultural crops. Soy is the only exception. They are not dependent on these imports precisely because of the biological nitrogen fixers used by growers, which saves some $10 billion in synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
Biofertilizer saves farmers huge amounts of money. According to Solon Cordeiro de Araujo, consultant to the National Association of Producers and Importers of Inoculants (ANPII) and co-author of the article, chemical fertilizers cost around BRL 1,000 per hectare while biofertilizer inoculants cost less than 50 BRL per hectare.
“The work done in the case of soybeans involves selecting certain bacteria, isolating them and applying them to the crop in order to increase the quantity of these beneficial microorganisms in the soil. Bacteria replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Instead of chemicals, farmers use biofertilizer inoculants, which take nitrogen from the air and inject it directly into the plant,” Araujo explained.
The impact is all the greater as Brazil is the world’s leading producer and exporter of soybeans, with more than 36 million hectares of planted area. The authors of the article highlight the economic and environmental benefits of microbiome research in Brazil in order to show growers of other crops the benefits of biofertilizers and to encourage scientists to do more research on the replacement of chemical fertilizers by microorganisms.
All crops need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In the case of soybeans, the biofertilizer only provides nitrogen. The other two nutrients are provided by chemicals. In other cases, such as corn, beans, and rice, for example, all three nutrients are supplied by chemicals.
Nitrogen biofertilizer has been developed in Brazil since the introduction of soybeans in the 1960s. “Brazil has opted for the development and refinement of these bacteria and bacterial products as substitutes for chemical nitrogen,” Araujo said.
According to the authors, the substitution of chemical nitrogen with microbiome products in soybeans was made possible through collaborative efforts in three areas. “It is the result of the work done in academia, regulation and industry. Scientists from universities and EMBRAPA brought the required technology to Brazil. Legislators adopted the necessary regulatory framework. And the industry has also played its part in terms of implementation and commercialization,” Souza said.
Microorganism research has been ongoing since the beginning of soybean cultivation in Brazil, but the number of articles and products has increased over the past decade as genetic sequencing tools have become more accessible. . “The case of Brazilian soybeans is also important because it paved the way for other products to gain market share and for other crops to use biofertilizers,” he added.
Model for other cultures
The development of microbiome-based technologies is expected to grow in Brazil. Along with advances in research leading to better selection of microorganisms and the production of more potent inoculants, the researchers noted another set of factors that will contribute to the use of biofertilizers by growers of different crops.
“There is talk of a perfect storm leading to the use of biofertilizers in Brazil,” Souza said. “We now have a large number of startups and research centers interested in developing new microbiome products for different crops. The economic and environmental protection figures are impressive. It has also become clear that we need to rely less on chemical fertilizers, most of which are imported. The case of Brazilian soy could therefore be a driving force for further advances in the use of biofertilizers here.
About the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)
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