In an exclusive interview, Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO, BioConsortia, talks to Fyna Ashwath about the company’s breakthrough developments in microbi- oligical products for plant trait enhancement and yield improvement.

‘Microbiomes play an integral role in agriculture’

HE IS CREDITED with steering the success of BioConsortia, a company responsible for the development of beneficial
‘microbial consortia’ that can help plants overcome biotic (pests and diseases) and abiotic (droughts, climate and environ- mental) stresses and improve the plant health and crop yields. Meadows-Smith reveals his true passions – the environment, science and farming, while speaking about the work of his team at BioConsortia.

As the world battles climate change combined with the urgent need to improve agricultural productivity, it becomes increasingly clear that microbes have an invaluable role to play for the benefit of the people and the planet.

African Farming: Please elaborate the use of Genomics and microbiome analysis employed by Bioconsortia to help identify the best microbial products that influence the plant’s phenotype.

Meadows-Smith: Our R&D platform with its iterative approach, similar to plant breeding, has been involved in the selection of high performing plants. We are pioneering the use of directed selection in identifying teams of microbes – working like plant breeders and selecting plants based on targeted characteristics, then isolating the associated microbial community.

The microbiome analysis comparing high performing versus low performing plants in each round will help identify the microbes, and teams of microbes, that correlate to the high performing plants.

“Biologicals are a good method to break resistance that is developing to many synthetic pesticides due to their repeated over-use.”

We then test these microbes and consortia to confirm their activity. Genomics, the full DNA sequencing of each of our leads, tells us the genetic potential of each strain of microbe – whether it has the genes for nutrient acquisition, stress tolerance etc, so can it help the plant.

African Farming: How are biopesticides helping to meet the challenges of integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture?

Meadows-Smith: Biopesticides are additional tools for the grower. When used in IPM programmes, that are used in rotation with synthetic chemical pesticides, the biopesti- cides bring the added benefits of:

  • the same level of disease or pest control as the fully chemical programme.
  • increased yields (this is a very common observation as the microbes bring both pesticide mode of action as well as a biostimulant effect).
  • reduced pesticide residues (keeping the crops under the maximum residue levels (MRL).
  • resistance management (many synthetic pesticides are used repeatedly and so the pest or disease develops resistance. The different mode of action of biologicals can break this resistance).

African Farming: What is the next stage of innovation for Bioconsortia?

Meadows-Smith: BioConsortia’s R&D platform is focused on the discovery of beneficial microbes and a development model to produce agricultural products with superior efficacy and higher consistency in three areas of research:

  • Biopesticides: a pipeline of several biofungicides and nematicides with superior efficacy.
  • Biostimulants: growth promoting products that further increase yields in standard, high-yielding as well as stressed, agronomic conditions.
  • Fertiliser-use efficiency and nitrogen-fixation: developing products for major non- leguminous row crops (such as corn and wheat).

BioConsortia has identified a remark- able number of biofungicide leads that are numerically better in efficacy than the best biofungicide products on the market today; two of which are entering the registration phase of development. The biostimulants moving to registration have shown yield increases of more than 15 per cent in tomatoes, potatoes and green beans. Similarly, the nematicide products in early field trials have significantly decreased the number of nematodes infecting the crop plants and have increased yield by 15 per cent.

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