The Future of Farming: Eight Solutions For a Hungry World

The challenge of growing twice as much food by 2050 to feed nine billion people—with less and less land—is everyone’s problem. But scientists are hard at work fomenting a second green revolution.

By Hilary Rosner

4. Replace Fertilizer

1.2%: Amount of global greenhouse-gas emissions caused by the production of chemical fertilizers Solution Seeding fields with microbes that pull nitrogen from the air Potential Increase yields while leaving soil healthier than before ETA Small quantities available now

Fertilizer use has exponentially increased crop yields in the past 30 years. That fertilizer provides extra nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are essential for plants to build amino acids and cell walls. Soon, farmers may be able to get all the benefits of man-made fertilizer for hundreds of dollars less by using microbes instead. C.A. Reddy, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University, examined 300 naturally occurring soil microbes and assembled a cocktail that can simultaneously reduce the need for phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers, protect plants against pathogens, and boost yields in virtually every type of crop.

In his experiments, field-grown tomato plants fed with his microbes produced nearly 90 percent more fruit, and greenhouse tomato yields were often even greater compared with using traditional fertilizer. He’s also tried them on plants ranging from eggplant to switchgrass. Reddy’s microbes are self-sustaining, unlike traditional fertilizer, which needs to be replenished every year. He’s doing extensive field trials now.