Soil-living bacteria and fungi can be used to boost crop yields by more than 50 per cent without the use of fertilizers, an international research project has found.
In combination with fertilizers, yields of key crops such as beans, can more than double, the scientists from seven countries discovered.
The findings, the result of an international effort to unravel the mysteries of so-called 'below ground biodiversity', are likely to have important implications for food security and farmers livelihoods and incomes.
The amount of fertilizer needed to boost yields is far less than using inorganic fertilizer on its own. Other important findings are that some of the micro-organisms assist in fighting crop diseases which in turn can reduce the need for pesticides.
For farmers switching to organic agriculture-whose produce commands higher premiums on world markets-this could prove especially valuable.
The findings were announced today at the opening of a week-long conference at the World Agroforestry Centre. The conference, bringing together some 70 experts, will outline how the soil organisms work, where they live and how they are extracted from the soil and packaged to work in the farmers' fields and in other ecosystems.
The research project, entitled the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Below Ground Biodiversity (CSM-BGBD), has involved scientists from Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and Uganda.
The eight-year project has been coordinated by the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of CIAT (TSBF-CIAT) with co-financing from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and implementation support from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).