Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

Unlocking the potential of microbiome science for ecosystem restoration


(This article was updated on 30 November)

FAO and the International Bioeconomy Working Group (ISBWG) hosted the fourth in a series of webinars on bio-innovations for agrifood systems transformation, this time focusing on “Microbial-based products and microbiome R&D: game-changing opportunities for ecosystem restoration”. 

The webinar was facilitated by Anne Bogdanski and Marta Gomez from the FAO Sustainable and Circular Bioeconomy team, who noted the timeliness of discussing the issue after World Microbiome Day (27 June) and the recently launched UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, led by FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme.  


Jennifer Kendzior, FAO microbiome expert, introduced the webinar, stressing that the causes of ecosystem degradation are many and interconnected, affecting the well-being of over 3 billion people and coming at an enormous cost of about 10 percent of global GDP annually. She noted that protecting ecosystems and promoting a sustainable bioeconomy are mutually reinforcing and can contribute to achieving many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

“Addressing the aims of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration can also achieve multiple other global concurrent goals such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Plan, and the Land Degradation Neutrality targets,” she said. 

Keynote speech 

“Plants were born in a world in which bacteria already had 2 billion prior years to evolve clever nutrient and defence strategies – by making friends with bacteria, plants could gain these benefits!”, began the webinar’s keynote speaker, Professor Professor Manish N. Raizada, from the Department of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, Canada. 

Professor Raizada noted how microbial fertilizers (also called biofertilizers or inoculants) have both the ability to reduce and improve use of chemical fertilizers. The biofertilizer market is projected to increase from USD 1 billion in 2016 to USD 3-4 billion by 2027, driven by demand for organic food, environmental concerns, farmer economics and changing government regulations. 

Biofertilizers are especially important in tropical and subtropical regions, where most of the world’s smallholder farmers are located. In the tropics, chemical fertilizer uptake by plants is reduced by acidic soil, which contributes to low crop yield and hunger; whereas in the subtropics, low vegetation causes low soil organic matter, meaning chemical fertilizers are more likely to leach. However, biofertilizer microbes have the advantage of being able to bypass soil and deliver nutrients directly inside the plant.  

Professor Raizada highlighted some major benefits associated with biofertilizers, including nitrogen fixing, promoting root growth, promoting yield, allowing nutrient uptake in acidic soils, and reducing the need for environmentally damaging pesticides and fungicides. He noted that using nitrogen-fixing inoculants leads to average yield increases of 20-30 percent. 

However, he also outlined some potential disadvantages, including short shelf life, safety concerns, and the need for more farmer training. He finished by offering five policy recommendations: 1) a dedicated CGIAR microbiome institute for smallholder farmers with a bacterial bank; 2) a start-up capital fund to build bioreactors and refrigeration; 3) a central technical advisory team and local teams focused on training women farmer cooperatives and local groups; 4) standardized global safety regulations; and 5) an international treaty to safeguard and promote indigenous microbes. 


A stimulating group discussion followed, with Roman Brenne from the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, which leads the International Bioeconomy Forum, stating “only 1 percent of the microbiome has been researched so far”, and yet it is so important for achieving the SDGs, as well as being one of the ten pathways of the EU’s Food 2030 Strategy.  

Karel Callens, Lead of FAO’s Microbiome Working Group, outlined how FAO has been conducting a literature review on microbiome focusing on three areas: soil, food safety, and nutrition.  

To a question from Marco Rupp (Bio-based Industries Consortium) on how he saw the regulatory pathway for supporting biostimulants, Professor Raizada noted the lack of consistency worldwide. To ensure safety and regulatory oversight, he advocated using buffered, centralized farms where experiments could be done safely under the supervision of Ministries of Agriculture.  

Hugo de Vries from France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) suggested that the real justification for biofertilizers is that there is a potential for continuous optimization in microbiome science that is not possible with chemical fertilizers. Professor Raizada agreed but noted that with living microbiome there is a dynamic ecosystem that is altered by parameters such as temperature, and therefore a great challenge in the microbial sphere is reproducibility.

He suggested as a potential solution focusing on better native microbiome, which is associated with better plant nutritional efficiency. 

Finally, Jörg Lotz (German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture) asked how countries could increase soil organic matter. Professor Raizada replied that 75 percent of global malnutrition is in the subtropics and that to rehabilitate soils there, one would need to use a starter biofertilizer and some deep root crops (such as pigeon peas), switching to other biofertilizers, such as farm manure, only after several seasons. 

Developments since June 

In early October 2021, FAO presented updates on its microbiome work at the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology & the Bioeconomy conference in Vienna. FAO also brought its microbiome work to the attention of the Second Eastern Africa Bioeconomy Conference on 10–11 November, and is presenting two microbiome-themed draft papers focusing on nutrition and bioeconomy at the International Bioeconomy Forum plenary meeting on 29–30 November.  

Further reading: Encouraging microbes to work for us