Healthcare innovation

Biobased agri-innovation with microbiome products

Biobased agri-innovation with microbiome products

Interview with Dr Angela Sessitsch, Head of Bioresources at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, and Coordinator of the HORIZON2020-funded project “MicrobiomeSupport” about microbiome-based innovations as a biobased technology helping mitigate the current food crisis and climate change.

Sylvia Schreiber is a Journalist and Science Communicator.

The microbiome has made its way into scientific publications, politics, and citizens` daily life. What is “the microbiome”, and why is it essential? 

Angela Sessitsch: The microbiome is more than probiotic yoghurt. The microbiome is a vast community of microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, which act and interact in living systems in and around us. Invisible yet numerous, these microbes can operate collectively like natural armies to fight diseases or buffer CO2 in oceans or forests. Humans, animals, plants, soils, and water have specific microbiomes. In the last decade, the research highlighted beneficial properties of microbiomes that can enable a paradigm shift towards more sustainability and resilience. We are now at the edge of reaching farms with these discoveries and applications.  

Why do you address the broader public with this interview now?

Angela Sessitsch: Microbiome research has great potential, but we are one step away from making it sound. Current issues on the European level regarding the proposed regulation on, for instance, the sustainable use of chemical pesticides and alternative microbial plant protection products reflect the dilemma. Farmers and their organizations fear substantial production losses by cutting pesticides by up to 50%, as demanded by the EU’s farm-to-fork strategy. Therefore, we need efficient approval and market access for new microbial products to have sustainable alternatives available. With their properties to control pests but also increase plant yield, bio-based pesticides have the potential to keep farming systems productive and sustainable and, at the same time, protect these systems better against future shocks.

What potential do you see in microbiome-based solutions to solve some of our grand challenges?

Angela Sessitsch: The vulnerability of our global agrifood systems is not only demonstrated with the current food crisis and supply chain distortions. The challenges of climate change, global soil deterioration, animal welfare, or food-related chronic diseases require more sustainable farming and healthier food and medical products. Microbiome-based farming products can replace traditional growth stimulants, make crops and seeds more stress-tolerant and support precision agriculture, helping reach the goals of the European Green Deal. Big data represented through new infrastructure, biobanks and digital tools will support this development.  

Which innovative applications could be available within three to five years? 

Angela Sessitsch: Hundreds of innovative firms and start-ups are working on microbiome-based solutions to improve soils, plant breeding, animal health, food production and ultimately, human health. On a long list of well-advanced applications, flagships upscaled to market readiness are microbiome-based biocontrol agents; for use in the EU, 60 have already been approved, but many more are in the test pipeline. Next are microbial soil biodiversity improvers to enhance fertility and soil carbon capture capacity or bio-stimulants for plant growth. Probiotics will be increasingly available for livestock to improve animal health, and there are developments to reduce methane emissions from cattle. Enzymes to ferment foods with added anti-inflammatory properties or biorefined, nutrient-enhanced crop residues will soon come to the feed market, as well as novelties for aquaculture. Thanks to microbial catalysts, Europe now grows more protein-and oil-rich seaweed and algae to replace fish in animal feed. All these applications should reach the farms soon.     

What are the main hurdles for microbiome-based applications in the EU?

Angela Sessitsch: There are three main issues. Firstly, a lack of coherent regulation at the national and EU level prevents fast market access. A first positive sign is the newly published EU rules simplifying microbial biopesticide approval and authorization from November this year. Secondly, we need much more data and research funding for biobanks. They help integrate and exploit research data across food system disciplines. Last, we need substantial investment in research, particularly in improving microbial applications’ efficiency in real-life agriculture. Here, we need field trials under different conditions and across European countries, accompanied by in-depth, multi-disciplinary analyses. Such trials are underway in other parts of the world. For example, a public-private 20 million US dollars investment in the US aims to understand the potato microbiome, yield, soil health and risk of crop disease in real-life conditions across 9 US-States.   

How much money would be needed to implement these actions and field trials in Europe? 

Angela Sessitsch:I would roughly estimate around 60 million Euros in the next 5 and 10 years to be spent in the EU on dedicated field studies of various selected microbials, initially for the three most important crops. Expected results will tremendously support the development of more efficient solutions that help to better tailor agro-management practices.

What are the most important outcomes of the MicrobiomeSupport project? 

Angela Sessitsch: Our project focused on joining and networking all major microbiome research and innovation players across the food system in Europe and beyond. We started with a mapping of the research and policy landscape. We have defined the microbiome to ensure a common language and summarised microbiome product developments that showcase what the microbiome can do. Moreover, we have addressed technical issues to move the field forwards, like recommending biobanking needs and multi-disciplinary scientific methods. We then provided funding policy recommendations focused on cross-disciplinary research and targeted policymaking in other areas. Guidance for regulation and education has been provided, too. We also came together as experts to support further research and innovation advancements, advise policymakers and address citizens’ concerns beyond the project.    

You mentioned the exchange with non-EU researchers. Did you benchmark microbiome-based innovations with other parts of the world compared to Europe? 

Angela Sessitsch: One of the beauties of the project lies in the worldwide network of the “International Bioeconomy Forum“, which joins microbiome researchers and government agencies across six continents: Europe, the USA, Canada, Brazil, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and China. Indeed, the US, Brazil and New Zealand recently reported massive field trial investments to test microbiome-based applications in crop cultivation and bring innovations faster to the farm level. Across the US, 40 academic microbiome centres are part of eco-innovation in agrifood. In Brazil, over 90 new biopesticides are now in use, and on-farm biorefining crop residues are on the rise in Brazil. New Zealand is transforming its entire agrifood systems towards sustainability using microbiome-based solutions. With a two-digit-billion investment, the government pays, among others, premiums to farmers for environmental credits and supports big kiwi planters in their plan to be carbon-positive by 2030. Europe should learn and speed up its efforts.

The FAO strongly supports microbiome-based agroecology. With its farm-to-fork strategy, the EU Commission has expressed an agenda shift towards more sustainability in agrifood systems. Will this suffice to mainstream the “microbiome” approach in European agriculture and food production?

Angela Sessitsch: The OECD also considers microbiome applications essential for organic waste recovery in a circular economy and novel products from biorefined residues or biomass to substitute animal feed. But we also need to increase microbiome knowledge from school age onwards as well as vocational training for farm professionals. Regulators should also be familiar with the importance of microbiomes and innovation ecosystems, be ready to protect European intellectual property and support the scale-up of promising products.

If you had a free wish: What kind of support from the policy would you like to see to foster vital microbiome research in the EU?  

Angela Sessitsch:My first wish would be for research to scale up from the lab to meaningful sized field trials. As mentioned, this would require funding and investment. My second wish is to understand the link between the environment, food/feed, and human health better. And last, more support activities outside of research: regulatory developments and exchange with citizens about their needs and thoughts for a faster uptake of microbiome applications in daily life.