Conventional, incremental improvements to land and fertilizer use will only take us so far reducing farming’s greenhouse gas emissions. As a novel nitrogen source, Pivot Bio’s engineered microbes represent a radical ability to change our thinking on how we generate and produce materials for humankind. Image courtesy NASA.

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A bold strategy for saving our world

Novel nitrogen sources allow us to radically rethink how we produce food and materials for humankind.

Agriculture has come a long way in the last 100 years, due in large part to the invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. But producing and using synthetic fertilizer accounts for 5% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of in-field nitrogen fertilizer, is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

At the same time, the world population is expected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050. A major report by the World Research Institute (WRI), “Creating A Sustainable Food Future,” says that current food production techniques can only provide half the food we will need. We’ll need to double our production while reducing total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 70%. Climate change further strains our ability to produce food, creating a vicious cycle between food insecurity and a rapidly changing environment. We urgently need new technologies and ways of thinking to produce more food without further damaging our planet.

The way we use nitrogen is due for an upgrade, and the WRI report outlines potential strategies to improve nitrogen use efficiency. One idea is to microdose crops with fertilizer throughout the growing season, but this method is labor intensive and costly. If sustainable agriculture practices are to replace current ones, it is critical that these approaches are practical and not prohibitively expensive.

Agroforestry is another possible approach, especially if it incorporates nitrogen-fixing trees. Most plants cannot digest nitrogen directly — but certain trees like Acacia and Mesquite are able to fix nitrogen through their own microbial communities, subsequently enriching the soil around them. Legumes also have the ability to fix nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. This has the added advantage of reducing farmer inputs in addition to healthier soil. The idea of using living organisms to bring in nitrogen is promising but until now, modern agriculture has required more nitrogen than they could provide.

How can we apply this concept to those important grains – corn, wheat, rice, and more – that provide half the world’s calories but don’t form symbiotic relationships with microbes? One type of living organisms may hold the solution. Free-living nitrogen-fixing microbes — which pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia — live on the surface of the plants’ roots, without specialized organs or structures. Could we leverage, and maybe even optimize, their natural metabolic activity to provide a sustainable solution to synthetic fertilizer?

Through their breakthrough product, Pivot Bio PROVEN™, Pivot Bio has done just that. Pivot Bio PROVEN™ enables soil microbes to “spoon feed” nitrogen directly to the crops’ roots. This means that there’s no excess nitrogen to wash away into the surrounding environment or be converted into damaging nitrous oxide.  

The scientists at Pivot Bio didn’t invent these microbes. They already existed in nature. As Pivot Bio’s co-founders Karsten Temme and Alvin Tamsir realized early on, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer caused these microbes to go dormant. The scientists at Pivot Bio have re-awakened the microbes, and, using synthetic biology to prompt greater nitrogen output, have enabled them to compete with traditional fertilizers.

Pivot Bio’s innovation is just the kind of out-of-the-box thinking modern agriculture needs. Updating nature’s own ancient systems to tackle climate change and global food security is as logical as it is revolutionary.

Each microbe is like a little nitrogen producing machine, making a daily dose of nutrition for the root cells they live next to.  Whereas chemicals are static (think synthetic fertilizers), biology is dynamic. Microbes grow over time. So one nitrogen producing microbe becomes two, two become four, and the microbes mature in harmony with the crops, increasing the nitrogen available at any given point in their lifecycle. As a result, the 2018 national field trials showed improved yields for farmers and the microbes could outperform synthetic nitrogen alone.

Pivot Bio Proven

Higher crop output is an important benefit. The WRI stresses that improving agricultural efficiency is critical to meeting our nutrition targets by 2050. The report outlines three “gaps” we need to close to sustainably meet our global calorie needs: the food gap, the land gap, and the greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation gap.

The food gap

The food gap represents the difference between the amount of food we produced in 2010 (the baseline year of the WRI report) and the amount of food we will likely need by 2050.  We will need an estimated 7,400 trillion more calories, double the food we produced in 2010. While it is possible to simply convert more land to food production, this comes with substantial environmental costs of its own.

The land gap

If we do not use our current agricultural land more efficiently, we will need an estimated 593 million more hectares by 2050, an area roughly twice the size of India. But clearing forests, peatlands and jungles for farmland destroys one of our most important bulwarks against climate change. And the process of land-use change produces even more GHG emissions. Each hectare of land converted from forest to agriculture releases over 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide (EPA; IPCC 2006). We need technologies that allow us to grow more food on less land to meet targets for greenhouse gas reduction.

The greenhouse gas mitigation gap

The GHG mitigation gap is the difference between the estimated level of agriculture-related GHG emissions by 2050 and the maximum agricultural GHG emissions allowance that we can expend to stave off catastrophic climate change. The WRI estimates that food production can release no more than 4 gigatons (Gt) of GHG emission by 2050. But we are currently on track to emit 15 Gt, presenting an 11 Gt gap.  

The WRI bluntly summarized its findings: “We must solve all these challenges at once. If we only focus on one issue, we will solve nothing.”

Pivot Bio’s PROVEN™ technology is capable of producing more food on the same amount of land with fewer harmful GHG emissions, helping to close the food, land, and GHG emissions gaps all at once — exactly the kind of revolutionary technology called for.

And they are just getting started. The company is developing its next generation of microbes for other staple crops like wheat and rice. Eventually, Pivot Bio aims to expand to other high-need regions like Brazil, Argentina, and Canada.

“If just one-third of US corn was grown with PROVEN™, it would be like taking 1 million cars off the road,” says Karsten Temme, Pivot Bio’s co-founder and CEO. That is the kind of technological breakthrough that drives  us to re-think how we help farmers be more productive and reduce their environmental footprint.”

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Mischel is the Editor-in-Chief of SynBioBeta. She frequently covers sustainability, CRISPR research, food and agriculture technology, and biotech for space travel. She is passionate to show how scientific innovations can combat our climate crisis and positively impact communities worldwide.

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