FAO Liaison Office in Brussels

FAO launches major review on the soil microbiome

07/09/2022

Strong evidence of links between crop production and the soil microbiome and impacts on climate, environment and human health

There are few sectors within the bioeconomy that are more exciting than microbiome science, technology and innovation (STI). Microbiomes – assemblages of bacteria, fungi, algae, viruses and other microbes that live and interact together in a defined environment – exist in terrestrial and aquatic systems and within all living creatures. They are crucial for determining the state and viability of habitats and the biodiversity that they support. And, as new discoveries are revealing, they could play a game-changing role in transforming our agrifood systems, as well as enhancing our understanding of human health and nutrition.

It is in this context that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is proud to announce the publication of The soil microbiome: a game changer for food and agriculture – Executive summary for policymakers and researchers. This summary, based on the comprehensive review of the impacts of crop production on the soil microbiome, provides important clues as to how we might reduce climatic and environmental impacts of our agrifood production systems. It also highlights the pivotal importance of the soil microbiome in ecosystem health, agroecosystems and the climate system, using bioeconomy as an overarching framework to illustrate the interlinkages and parallels between different microbiome ecosystems.

Knowledge built on science

Drawing on evidence from more than 2 000 scientific publications, the new review specifically focuses on nine practices or themes related to crop production: land use, tillage, agroecosystem, diversity, crop residue management, plant variety selection, irrigation, fertilization, pest management, and microplastics in agricultural soils. Practices that stand out as demonstrating beneficial effects on the soil microbiome and the functions they provide include: use of organic fertilizers, reduced tillage, increased on-farm plant diversity, and plant variety selection. These so-called nature-based solutions can restore and maintain ecological balances in the soil by virtue of soil microbial activities.

The review identifies policy and research gaps that should be explored further: ranging from better understanding of soil microbiota diversity and functions, and the role of soil microbiota in biogeochemical cycling, to links between the soil microbiome and antimicrobial resistance, and interconnections between different microbiome ecosystems. FAO’s review also provides policymakers and researchers with a number of recommendations, built around four core areas: public support for research, development and innovation; education and communication; commercialization of microbiome innovations, and stimulating demand for microbiome practices, products and services; and regulations.

Finally, the review makes clear that to unleash the full potential of microbiome applications, we will have to address challenges and mitigate any risks that may be associated with their widespread uptake. Among other things, this will necessitate finding ways to increase competitiveness of microbiome alternatives with agrochemical applications, supporting development of and compliance with regulations and standards (particularly around safety), and sharing knowledge with the public on the benefits and risks of microbiome applications.

Reaction to the review

Welcoming the publication, Lev Neretin, who leads the FAO flagship Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture programme, said “this new review adds to growing evidence around how certain agricultural practices stand out as benefiting the soil microbiome and should thus be promoted as an essential part of agrifood systems transformation. The review also reinforces the message that the sustainable and circular bioeconomy provides an overarching framework in facilitating such efforts. The review’s focus on the soil microbiome is particularly important, given the many invaluable services soils provide, including carbon sequestration, water and nutrient cycling, and the foundations for food security and nutrition, to name just a few.”

Anne Bogdanski, FAO technical officer and bioeconomy expert, as well as one of the authors of the review, added that “agrifood systems around the world stand to gain from the enormous potential of microbiome science, technology and innovation. It’s really about encouraging microbes to work for us. Together with partners from all over the world, including government representatives from the International Bioeconomy Forum and experts from the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group, FAO is excited to take the topic forward.”

More to come

The soil microbiome review was produced by the Bioeconomy unit in FAO’s Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, in conjunction with the FAO microbiome working group, which is led by Karel Callens, Senior Advisor to FAO’s Chief Economist. The group is currently finalizing two further microbiome-related papers – on bioeconomy and microbiome science technology and innovation, and microbiome and nutrition – which FAO will publish in the coming months.