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The Economist
Jul 26th 2014 | CHINCHINÁ | From the print edition
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How Colombia fought the fungus

WHEN Jesús María Aguirre saw his coffee bushes wither away, he knew that he had lost the sole source of income for his family. “We would go to collect coffee and would come back with our baskets nearly empty,” says the Colombian grower, recalling the pernicious effects of the “coffee rust” fungus, or roya.

The fungus stunts the growth of the fruit of arabica coffee plants. It infected about 40% of Colombia’s crop between 2008 and 2012. Production plunged from a high of 12.6m 60kg bags a year in 2007 to just 7.7m bags in 2012. As supply from Colombia shrank, international buyers turned to growers elsewhere.

What Mr Aguirre went through then is now the lot of farmers throughout Central America, the Dominican Republic, southern Mexico and Jamaica. Production there fell by 30% between 2011 and 2013 because of roya, reckons the International Coffee Organisation. USAID thinks it has caused $1 billion of economic damage in Latin America since 2012. This time Colombians are the ones taking advantage.

On his farm on the slopes of the country’s central mountain range, Mr Aguirre today presides over 1.5 hectares (4 acres) of healthy bushes plump with red berries. For yields to recover, he had to yank up fungus-prone bushes and plant a new variety that promised to fight off the blight. He was one of thousands of farmers who joined in a countrywide scheme run by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which represents more than 500,000 independent growers. By June 2014 more than 3 billion bushes had been replanted.

Three-quarters of them were replaced with a roya-resistant variety known as Castillo, which had been developed in the labs of Cenicafé, the coffee federation’s research arm, after 13 years of selective breeding. Lindsey Bolger, head coffee buyer for Keurig Green Mountain, a roaster in the United States, said the industry was “on pins and needles” about whether the Castillo would work. It has. Colombia produced 11.5m bags in the 12 months to June 2014, up by 31% on the previous 12-month period, according to the coffee federation. Buyers are coming back.

Fernando Gast, Cenicafé’s director, says seeds of the Castillo coffee plants have been sent to Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica for evaluation. But he warns that Colombia’s success story is not directly transferable to Central America. The Castillo variety was created for Colombia’s needs and may not adapt to Central America’s soil and climate, he says.

Cenicafé’s 89 researchers cannot rest easy, either. They are working on a project to map the coffee genome. That should help them develop new varieties that will not only resist roya, which is continuously evolving, but will also be less susceptible to erratic weather. The search for a stronger brew is never over.

From the print edition: The Americas

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PRI’s The World
Reporter Cynthia Graber
July 02, 2014 · 2:15 PM EDT

http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-02/future-agriculture-may-be-too-small-see-think-microbes

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Thin filaments of fungi form a dense network between the roots of most of the world’s food crops. Some researchers believe that working with such microbes rather than against them, as has often been the case in conventional agriculture, will help the world grow more food with less environmental impact.

 

 

 

cassava

Geneticist Ian Sanders and his colleagues grew cassava in this field in Colombia using a fungal gel that he says improved yields by 20 percent. Cassava, which is native to Colombia, is one of the world’s most important food crops, feeding over a billion people.

 

Thin filaments of fungi form a dense network between the roots of most of the world’s food crops. Some researchers believe that working with such microbes rather than against them, as has often been the case in conventional agriculture, will help the world grow more food with less environmental impact.

Stick a shovel in the ground and you’ll dig up some soil, maybe a few little rocks and, of course, some roots.

Now — take those roots inside for a closer look and you’ll see something else as well.

“When you hold this thing up to the light, what you can see is little tiny filaments,” says geneticist Ian Sanders, holding up a root in his lab at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

The filaments look like tiny strands of cotton..

“That’s the fungus,” says Sanders.

Sanders is obsessed with fungi, because he thinks they can play a big role in solving the world’s big food challenges in a time of rapid climate change and population growth.

In particular, Sanders is obsessed with a type of fungi that live on the roots of about 80 percent of the plants on the planet. Their tiny filaments help plants grow by drawing water and nutrients to the plant. In return, the plants feed sugars to the fungi.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that Sanders says is incredibly important.

“Almost all our food plants naturally form this association with these fungi,” he says.

And these species of fungi aren’t alone. There are thousands, maybe millions of kinds of fungi, bacteria and other microbes that help plants in a variety of ways.

But their role has been almost invisible to people. In fact, critics say, modern agriculture actively works against them.

“What we’ve done over the last hundred years in agriculture, is to try to take microorganisms out of the picture,” says Seattle microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez.

“And by doing that, by disrupting the soil with tillage, by using chemical pesticides, we have greatly altered the agricultural microbiome.”

Rodriguez is also obsessed with fungi. And like Sanders, he wants to re-alter the agricultural mircobiome. Both are part of a growing field of researchers and entrepreneurs working to bring microorganisms like fungi back into the agricultural mix, but in a new and targeted way. Sanders is breeding new varieties in the lab, while Rodriguez’s company gathers fungi from extreme environments all over the US and cultivates them in their lab and greenhouse in Seattle.

Right now, Rodriguez is using the fungi to help grow tomatoes, soybeans and corn. His hope is that the microbes will help crops like these survive growing climate stresses like droughts and floods and extreme heat and cold.

Rodriguez is working with different kinds of fungi than Sanders. His grow throughout the plant, not just on roots. But his goal is the same — to find and develop fungi that make agriculture both more productive and more sustainable. And, he says, his first two products using these microbes are just about ready for prime time, with a possible launch later this year.

Sanders’s work isn’t quite there yet. He and his colleagues are still conducting field tests in places like Colombia. But he says the results so far have been very promising.

Columbia is home to cassava, a root crop that feeds more than a billion people around the world. Sanders and a group of Colombian researchers set up experimental plots there to grow cassava using a new fungal gel that they hoped would significant increase yields while significantly reducing fertilizer use.

When they harvested their first crop a year later, Sanders says, they were “delighted” by the results — the plants had grown up to 20 percent more roots.

Sanders says the result actually surprised him, but that it was just the beginning. The research team has since grown cassava with different varieties of lab-bred fungi, and so far, he says, the impact has been even more dramatic.

Rodriguez, in Seattle, shares Sanders’s bullish view of the future of agricultural fungi and bacteria.

“Biologics,” he believes, “are the next paradigm for agriculture.”

Of course we’ve heard talk like that before. Think chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs, all of which brought big initial benefits, but also big environmental problems, or at least big concerns.

So far, there hasn’t been much push-back on biologics from environmentalists, but just because something’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Which is why both Sanders and Rodriguez say they’re working to make sure the fungi they’re developing won’t bring any unwanted impacts.

“You have to know the organism is safe,” Rodriquez says. “I never want to be in a situation where I stand up in front of an audience and they ask me that question and I say ‘I don’t know.’”

What Rodriguez does know is that lots of tools will be needed to help produce more food, more sustainably.

And Sanders says we’ve been standing on some of those tools all along.

“Sometimes people think you have to go to unexplored wilderness to find something completely new,” Sanders says. “But we just have to look in the soil that’s beneath our feet.”

 

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