The rise and rise of biological seed treatment

When treating seeds with biological organisms was first suggested many years ago, the idea seemed like something out of a sci-fi comic book. But today, just like how these organisms proliferate in plant systems, the idea has proliferated in the R&D departments of top agricultural companies as research scientists join the race to find the best ways to unleash the powers of these microscopic creatures. Indeed, the future of agriculture is looking more likely to be defined not necessarily by huge machinery, massive satellites and big data, but by the tiny organisms whose potentials we are just beginning to unmask.

There are billions of microbes in the soil around plant roots. Some are friends, some are enemies. The person who said ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer’ wasn’t talking about crop production… not literally anyway. In farming, you’d want to keep your friends close and your enemies far, far away. Keeping the very beneficial soil microbes close is key, and forms the core of biological seed treatment.

But how do these beneficial organisms work? Farmers all over the world are familiar with Rhizobia used to inoculate legumes such as soybean, peas and lentils. These bacteria were discovered more than a century ago. When applied on seeds of legumes, the bacteria penetrate the root, resulting in the formation of root nodules that fix nitrogen from the air and make it readily available to the plant. Another bacterium, Azospirillum brasilense, in addition to fixing nitrogen, also produces plant hormones which help important plant processes such as germination, stem elongation, flower development and leaf and fruit senescence. Penicillium bilaiae, a naturally-occurring soil fungus excretes organic acids that solubilize phosphorus tied up in the soil, making the nutrient available for uptake by plant roots.  Some biological seed treatments also contain natural compounds which encourage the colonization of roots by mycorrhizal fungi thereby increasing the surface area of roots and enabling them take up more water and nutrients. There is indeed, a wide range of biologicals and at SynergyAG we are committed to ensuring that growers use the products best suited to their needs.

Science has shown that seed treatments are advantageous. The return on investment will be more apparent when growing conditions are poor. For example, if a treatment is designed to help seeds thrive during periods of moisture stress, its efficacy cannot be assessed if the soil is sufficiently moist. However, treating seeds offers insurance against unexpected crop challenges or when the weather throws us a curve ball – which seems to happen far too often these days.

-Ikenna Mbakwe, PhD, PAg
Head of Research
SynergyAG

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