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Sustainability

Addressing the root of the problem of sustainable production within the “Brown Revolution”

By Dr Koos Bornman (General Manager: Strategic Agricultural Services)

The facts and equations remain; by 2050 the world will need to produce 70% more food to feed 9 billion people. In developing countries like Africa, food production will need to double. All in all there will be very little possibility of lateral expansion of arable land. In fact an increase of arable land of only 70 million ha or less than 5% is foreseen (FAO High Level Expert Forum, 2009).

No wonder there is an urgent call for a second “Green Revolution” to increase the efficiency of food production per unit area in a sustainable way. Bill Gates has been among the proponents of such a second “Green Revolution”, stating: “The charge is clear—we have to develop crops that can grow in a drought; that can survive in a flood; that can resist pests and disease...we need higher yields on the same land in harsher weather."

Within the new “Green Revolution”, there is another. It is called the “Brown Revolution”. The “Brown Revolution” is often called the only sustainable response to the global food crisis. “It aims to usher in the next prolific leap for farmers who focus as much effort to grow soil quality as growing a crop. It's all about reduced tillage and conservation practices that preserve soil aggregates and root networks” (Lawton, Corn and Soybean Digest, Jan 2013).

Understanding soil conservation and root systems has been an age old challenge as Mary Beth Albright explains in The National Geographic, October 13, 2015; “The “Brown Revolution” is happening. If the last time you talked about soil was to call it something as boring as dirt, heed what Leonardo da Vinci said: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than we know about the soil underfoot.” That was 500 years ago and soil experts agree that it’s still true today.”

Omnia Nutriology® joined the Brown Revolution 13 years ago when OmniBio™ was founded. OmniBio™ is a research and development unit within Omnia that studies soil life and health and develops related concepts and products. Recently, focus has shifted to the root system and especially the rhizosphere (contact between soil and root) to find ways to enhance root growth and to augment, amongst others, nutrient and water use efficiency including resistance to disease.

It would seem that the root systems of crops are being inhibited due to many factors besides unhealthy soil as such. For example, recent research has shown that genetic manipulation of plants seem to negatively impact on root systems as well. Research on small grains in the UK has shown a fourfold decrease in root length density of wheat since the 70’s. In fact the tendency was noted in 17 crops (White, Sylvester-Bradley, and Berry, 2015).

Creating a healthy environment for roots to thrive in and also adding natural stimulants could enhance root growth and proliferation dramatically, even doubling water use efficiency (White et al, 2015) and boosting nutrient uptake by up to 400% (Fusseder and Krauss (1986) in Marschner, 2002).

OmniBio™ has developed a range of products grouped under the trade name Rhizovator™ that consists of various stimulants such as for instance well known humate, kelp, amino-acids and even microbes, but also new exciting components. These products are tailor made for specific crop groups and regions. In cases specific micro-element combinations are also added to suit site specific requirements.

The Rhizovator™ products have not only been tested in several greenhouse pot trials with grains and canola as test crops but also in the field. Trials were also conducted with orchard crops like table grapes.

Statistically significant responses in root growth were recorded in all cases with increases in root mass of up to 200% (Figures 1 and 2). Field trials in the Southern Cape have shown statistically significant root mass increase of 23% with wheat, giving a grain yield increase of 10% as consequence.

What was also noted in the trials, is statistically significant increases (up to 26%) in chlorophyll content (measured with the Minolta SPAD 502 meter) and increases of nutrient uptake of more than 60%.

Figure 1: Root growth of wheat and canola treated with different forms and levels of Rhizovator™

Figure 2: Root growth of maize treated with different levels of Rhizovator™

On table grapes, the Rhizovator™ product was used in trials at three localities (Groblersdal, Worcester and Upington) to see if it would enhance the establishment of vine cuttings. Astonishing results were obtained with the vines reaching the “wire” within 4 months even carrying bunches of fruit (Figure 3). At Groblersdal a yield was achieved of four and a half thousand boxes export quality grapes within 15 months of planting the cuttings.

Figure 3: Growth of newly established table grape cuttings five months after planting (Western Cape).

More Rhizovator™ products are in development for various applications on different crops. The focus is the addition of live microbial cultures to serve as both stimulants and combatants against root disease such as phytophtora and nematodes.

The “Brown Revolution” will certainly continue from Omnia Nutriology®‘s point of view with continued efforts to enhance root growth, the rhizosphere and soil health to in turn augment water and nutrient use efficiency buttressing sustainability.

Join the revolution!

Primary references:
  • Marschner, H. 2002. Mineral nutrition of higher plants. Academic press, London. Second edition.
  • White, C.A., Sylvester-Bradley, R. & Berry P.M. 2015. Root length densities of UK wheat and oilseed rape crops with implications for water capture and yield. J Exp. Bot. 66 (8) 2293-2303.