Agriculture has a math problem. To feed an extra two billion people by 2050—the equivalent of six more United States—the world will need to increase crop production by 70% to 100%. But yield gains have slowed to just 1% a year, and the technology farmers rely on for those meager gains, such as pesticides, cause problems of their own.
A Cambridge-based startup called Indigo, which announced a $56-million funding round today, thinks the solution may lie in probiotics for plants. By dosing seeds in healthy microbes, farmers can grow as much as 10% more food, and as the technology develops, yields may increase even more.
The startup was inspired by research on the human microbiome—the trillions of microbes that live on and around us, affecting everything from our mood to how likely we are to get cancer. Plants, it turns out, have a microbiome of their own, and just as antibiotics wreak havoc on the human microbiome, pesticides and other chemicals have affected the health of crops.
"The plant microbiome, the natural community of microbes that live inside of the plant, evolved with the plant over millions of years until modern technology has sort of systematically but unconditionally decimated them," says CEO David Perry. "Those inventions were tremendous breakthroughs and allowed us to feed hundreds of millions of people, but they also had unintended negative consequences."
The researchers at Indigo have spent the last two years sequencing 40,000 microbes—the largest body of data that exists on the microbial makeup of plants—and figuring out how to bring those beneficial microbes back to farms.
"What we do in concept is really simple: We go and try to identify what those lost beneficial microbes are, and we add them back in the form of a seed coating," Perry says. "So it gets coated on the seed before it goes in the ground, and the result is a healthier plant."
Microbes can help plants grow with less water, in hotter weather, and in saltier soil—the types of stress that are becoming more common as the climate changes.
While others have studied the plant microbiome, most are focused on the microbes living in soil. Because a small handful of soil can contain a billion microbes, however, it's hard to tell which are actually interacting with the plant. The researchers decided to study the microbes inside of the plant instead.
"We basically said look, plants have been growing in this soil for a million years, and they've already made this selection," says Perry. "They've already sorted through and figured out which microbes are beneficial and which aren't, and if you want to figure out which microbes are good for plants, look inside of the plant."
Because plants doused in the microbes are more resilient, they can also grow abundantly with fewer chemicals. The startup plans to initially sell its coating to farmers who are already coating seeds with things such as insecticide or fungicide, but over time, farmers should be able to reduce or even eliminate the other products.
"I can imagine a time in the future where we look back on the time in history when we spread pesticides on hundreds of millions of acres and we think, 'Thank God we don't have to do that anymore,'" says Perry.
"In theory, one can imagine sort of rebuilding healthy agriculture over time," he says. "It's going to take a long time . . . but you can imagine that at some point in the future it's no longer necessary to add these back because we have these farming practices that nourish them as opposed to decimate them."
The probiotic coating could be especially helpful in parts of the developing world that are struggling with drought and can't afford fertilizer to begin with. But Indigo's first product, which they plan to launch this year, is designed for farmers growing major crops such as corn, soy, wheat, and cotton and who are already using advanced technology.
The increase in yields could help begin to solve the problem of food production, especially in combination with other strategies, such as reducing food waste. "The increased use of modern agricultural practices, including pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, all of that stuff combined, yields about a 1% a year improvement," says Perry. "So if we can take what we're seeing and get it in customers' hands, and then broadly get a 10%-improvement yield increase, that's like jumping forward a decade in terms of our capacity to feed the world."