Novozymes’ BioAg R&D Turns to Microbials to Boost Crop Yields

8/6/14Follow @frankvinluan

Before Colin Bletsky’s work took him around the world to talk about agricultural microbials, he was using them himself in the fertile region often called Canada’s breadbasket. Bletsky, now global bioag strategic alliance director for Novozymes, still farms at his Saskatchewan home. It’s too far north for corn or soy, but he uses microbials—beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi naturally found on plants and in soil—on canola seed and small grains, such as oats. The deciding factor for him, he says, was research showing the science of how microbials help plants grow.

“If you don’t have science, farmers are not going to buy in,” he says. “If you have science and it’s proven that it works, farmers will buy in.”

The choice Bletsky made to use microbials on his own farm is one that Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) and its new bioagricultural partner Monsanto (NYSE: MON), are hoping more farmers around the world will also make. For decades, the agriculture industry treated microbes as the enemy. Crop yields are hurt by pathogens such as Fusarium fungi, which cause blight in wheat and other cereal crops, and Erwinia, bacteria that cause fire blight on apples and pears. Companies responded by producing chemicals to kill them. Farmers bought these agents and applied them to their fields.

But there are limits to how much crop yields can be improved by using more chemicals, Bletsky says. And even if that weren’t the case, he adds, environmental regulations on chemical inputs are expected to only become stronger, limiting their use. Global population, estimated to top 9 billion by 2050, will bump up against resource constraints, such as the availability of water and arable land. That means farmers need to find ways to grow more food from the land they already farm. Industry, which once tried to defeat microbes with chemistry, is now aiming to harness their beneficial effects to help plants absorb nutrients better, fight disease, resist pests, and tolerate drought.

Denmark-based Novozymes, which operates its North American headquarters and one of its largest production facilities in Franklinton, NC, boosted its bioagricultural profile late last year through a microbials partnership with St. Louis-based agribusiness giant Monsanto. Monsanto paid Novozymes $300 million up front. The companies disclosed … Next Page »

Frank Vinluan is a contributing editor at Xconomy, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan@xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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