KNOWLEDGE
CENTRE

Farm [photo] 

Sustainability

OmniBio™ for a sustainable future

Biotechnology already plays a crucial role in twenty-first-century culture. Before French chemist Louis Pasteur began experimenting with bacteria in the 1860s, people did not know what caused diseases. Not only did he discover that disease came from micro-organisms, but also that bacteria could be killed by heat and disinfectants. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic – penicillin – which he grew in his lab using mold and fungi. Since then, antibiotics have been used to save millions of human lives from infections.

DNA

In 1953, James Watson of the USA and Francis Crick of England made one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history by cracking the DNA code. Using this DNA code today, scientists are able to formulate products from identified organisms for remediation of the environment. Scientists have also developed molecular techniques to solve crimes, rescue organisms from the brink of extinction and map the human genome. What new wonders does the future hold? How will science and biotechnology continue to change our world, but more specifically, the agricultural sector?

The South African agricultural community is becoming increasingly aware that the agricultural sector is evolving and that conventional farming practices are no longer sustainable. They are realising the benefits from understanding and harnessing the potential of soil microbial activity. Understanding the pivotal role of soil micro-organisms in sustainable farming, Omnia began to investigate this less understood discipline over a decade ago and established the OmniBioTM tech-nology as a means to manage soil biological life.

The OmniBio™ technology

The management of soil biological life starts with an OmniBio™ analysis, which forms a significant part of Omnia's Nutriology® concept. This analysis provides the farmer with a crop-specific proposal, focusing on the major biological indicators found in the soil. Should an OmniBio™ analysis reveal deficiencies in either bacteria or fungi, there are two products available to restore the balance. Fungimax™ is formulated to feed and stimulate fungi, whilst Organoboost™ supplements bacterial growth.

These products provide a food supply that fuels inherent microbial activity, restoring a balance in bacterial and fungal populations. If there are imbalances in these microbial groups, pathogenic micro-organisms may dominate the soil, causing plant stress and disease. A healthy microbial balance puts population pressure on the pathogens, resulting in a more suppressive soil for a healthy crop. The improvement depends on the soil's condition before treatment and the prescribed OmniBio™ application rates of the product.

The OmniBio™ technology also includes nematode analysis and enzyme assays.

Nematodes are microscopic worms that live in the soil and are commonly known as eelworms or round-worms. Free-living nematodes are microbial feeders or predators of other soil micro-organisms. They therefore regulate populations of soil organisms and contribute to soil fertility. The numbers and types of nematodes in the soil consequently reflect the amount of food available, which gives an indication of soil microbial diversity. The nematode analysis also determines the presence of plant-parasitic nematodes. The damage these parasites cause is one of the most important constraints on sustainable crop production. These nematodes can't be completely eradicated from agricultural soils, but the population can be managed efficiently once the role of each type is specified in an OmniBio™ analysis.

DNA

Many essential metabolic processes are mediated by enzymes produced by micro-organisms. Therefore, an assessment of enzyme activity provides a unique window into soil microbial activity. An OmniBio™ analysis offers enzyme assays as a means of determining a microbial population's potential to degrade or convert carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen substrates to plant-available nutrients.

The OmniBio™ technology provides an exclusive microbial assessment to the farm, potentially increasing yields, giving farmers better quality crops, helping plants resist disease and stress, and, most importantly, understanding the soil's microbial life for improved, sustainable crop management.

Research and Development

OmniBio™ analyses have been conducted on approximately 8 000 samples from all around South Africa since 2008. This has resulted in the transformation of an exclusive microbial assessment package to an innovative biological index.

The index is being scientifically and mathematically modelled using the data from these 8 000 samples which has taken a number of years to understand and interpret based on theoretical knowledge and practical experience. This science is gaining amplified interest from the agricultural sector internationally and South Africa is no exception, resulting in more samples being taken in specific areas.

This amount of analyses translates into a comprehensive database which is most recently being integrated with other soil properties to further understand the concept of soil health. Soil health is the condition of the soil in relation to its inherent or potential capability, to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality, and promote plant and animal health (Pankhurst et al., 1997). A healthy soil is productive, sustainable and profitable. It is prudent not to focus on soil health studies concentrating on soil microbiology alone, but rather to approach it holistically as it is the physical and chemical properties of soil that define the limits of activity for micro-organisms, plants and other life forms (Pankhurst et al., 1997).

Increased focus is being placed on integrating the OmniBioTM offering into commercial, but also sustainable agronomy portfolios. Therefore, additional research and development in this avenue encompasses a country wide survey of various soils in order to further understand the dynamics associated with soil microbial life and its interaction with soil chemical and physical properties.

In order to understand this complex concept of soil health, an evaluation of soils under different management practices is being conducted to establish effective reference points. This is being achieved by evaluating soils from different geographical areas ranging from poorly managed soils under conventional practices to well managed soils which undergo more sustainable management practices.

The agricultural sector in South Africa is evolving into an era of optimising and increasing yields by mitigating the risks associated with growing food insecurities in this semi-arid part of the world. Omnia has been proactive in its strategy to ensure that adequate resources have been channelled within this area which is in line with governmental objectives. OmniBio™ is another tool that Omnia uses to support their customers, and also provide sustainable agronomy towards the future.

Reference:
Pankhurst, C and Doube, B.M. 1997. Biological indicators of soil health. CSIRO Land and Water, Australia.

By Venessa Moodley: Manager - OmniBio™