Microbes to Help Feed a Giant Nation

Microbes to Help Feed a Giant Nation

India’s massive population—over 1.4 billion—is still expanding. The United Nations earlier reported that India is poised to overtake China this year as the world’s most populous country. It may have already happened, and one of the finalists for our first grant has big plans to help Indian agriculture keep up with growing food demand more sustainably.

India is importing increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which come with economic as well as ecological costs. According to Amit Kharkwal, deputy director of the Amity Institute of Microbial Technology at Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India’s central government spent more than $10 billion in fertilizer subsidies during the 2021-2022 growing seasons. “This subsidy is provided for both urea and non-urea fertilizers,” he told us in an interview.

Dr. Kharkwal is studying microbial inoculants to reduce the need for chemical inputs. “I am proposing complementing pesticide and chemical fertilizer use,” not replacing the chemicals entirely, he explained. “We are proposing a complementary strategy by reducing up to 50% of chemical fertilizers and pesticides”.

He kindly agreed to take our questions and explain to our newsletter readers a bit more about his research.

Amit Kharkwal and the power of microbes

Q: What problem is India encountering with its rising reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture?

A: Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led to several environmental and health issues in India, such as soil degradation, water pollution, and health problems related to the consumption of contaminated food. In fact, in the Indian state of Punjab, there is a popularly known, famous cancer express train known to ferry patients for treatment for more than one decade.

There is a reduction in response by major crops to fertilizer nutrients in the different agroecosystems of the country. That is a challenge which needs to be addressed. Similarly, as the pathogens become resistant to the use of pesticides, the dose and number of applications keep on increasing, leading to [the chemicals’] longer persistence in the food chain.

“In natural ecosystems, plans and microbe live in a holistic relationship and prodive innumerable benefits to each other.”

Q: What kinds of microbes are you referring to in your application, and have you already identified promising candidate microbial species?

A: I am referring to consortia Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae, which are two of the most important and widely used entomopathogenic fungi to control insect pests, with our novel root endophyte or its culture filtrate extract.

We have developed a novel consortium of fungus and bacteria that has been shown to reduce 50% [of chemical fertilizer] applications in limited field applications. However, we have to validate our best candidate as a replacement for chemical pesticides.

Plant-microbe symbiosis

Q: How do microbes help promote plant growth?

A: In natural ecosystems, plants and microbes live in a holistic relationship and provide innumerable benefits to each other. This association has declined due to high-input industrial agriculture involving chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Root colonization by beneficial fungal root endophytes results in a bidirectional flow of nutrients and water. While the plant provides the fungus carbohydrates to survive, the endophytic fungus residing inside the plant roots also sends fine hyphae outwards. These hyphae help in the absorption of water, minerals, and other nutrients in plants and suppress the growth of pathogenic microbes such as Fusarium oxysporum in soil.

Q: Do certain plants respond better to your microbial consortium innovation than others?

A: We have tested this endophyte in variable crops including cereals, oilseeds, pulses, and common vegetables. As such, there is no marked pattern of preference that is exhibited. The response varies with genotype and environment, soil condition, and irrigation—groundwater, canal, and rainfed.

Q: What’s the greatest challenge you are facing in your research?

A: Getting funding is among the biggest obstacles. While I have received funding for discovery and initial translation, including support from industry for sample preparation and third-party trials for testing the biofertilizer, the overall funding requirements are yet to be met for large-scale application of these products. 

— Grow Further

Photo credit: Dr. Kharkwhal provided a self-portrait of himself in the field.

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