Congress is in the midst of updating, as it does about every five years, the so-called farm bill, our nation’s comprehensive agricultural and food policy. This legislation ultimately touches every citizen, as well as literally billions of consumers around the globe who rely on the American farmer. It also helps determine whether new technologies and innovative products will drive advancements in areas ranging from nutrition and safety to environmental sustainability.

In the recent past, lawmakers have called upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue to pursue the vision that Abraham Lincoln had when he created the Department of Agriculture – a vision that included advancing U.S. agriculture through scientific breakthroughs. A new provision in the House of Representatives' draft of a new farm bill directs USDA to “ensure the expeditious and appropriate review, approval, uniform national labeling, and availability of plant biostimulant products to agricultural producers.”

This very young ag biostimulant space is taking off. Companies, ranging from small start-ups to most of the world’s agricultural giants, have already invested more than $13 billion into birthing a biostimulant sector. The current farm bill draft language, if it makes its way into law, will help provide a stable policy environment for the industry to move ahead.

What scientists now know is that every external surface of a plant, from leaves to flowers, from stems to roots, is populated with a massive number of microbes. Every square inch of a leaf’s surface is home to about 50 million microbes. The interior tissues of plants are also teeming with microbes. All these microorganisms interact with each other and with the plant itself. Their collective environment is known as the plant microbiome.

Understanding the plant microbiome is the foundation of the rapidly emerging ag biologicals sector. Researchers now know that the vast majority of the microbes on and in a healthy plant provide beneficial enhancements to a plant’s normal functions. They stimulate the plant’s growth, suppress diseases, improve the ability of roots to take in nutrients from soil, strengthen plant structures and improve a plant's tolerance of drought, heat and pests. Harnessing the power of microbes, therefore, can and does dramatically impact modern agricultural practices. 

Consider the process of nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen is an essential element found in every living cell, plant and animal. But nearly 80 percent of all nitrogen is found in the air where plants can’t access it. Nitrogen needs to be “fixed” with other elements to form useful compounds. That’s where microbial bacteria come in. Microbes in the soil help form the needed compounds, and microbes in and on a plant’s root systems help the plant to efficiently take in the nitrogen that a developing plant needs to survive. In recent years, a whole generation of new microbial nitrogen-fixing products has helped reduce – and even eliminate – the need for added fertilizers in growing some crops.

Research and understanding focused on unraveling the complex array of potential combinations of microbes -- how they work on which plants, for what purposes, and under what environmental conditions – is moving ahead rapidly. Applications will range from specialty crops to row crops and from conventional to alternative production, including organics. The future of this technology, including its commercialization, is virtually as boundless as the microbiome itself.

The House Agriculture Committee made a good first move in recognizing the importance of biostimulants. Now's the time for Congress to spur USDA on to set up the needed steps of review, approval, labeling and more so that these products can reach growers without tripping in red tape along the way. A friendly regulatory platform will help plant microbiome companies to truly make waves in U.S agriculture and beyond.

About the author: Gregg Bogosian, Ph.D., is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Concentric Ag Corporation in Denver and an expert in the biochemistry, genetics, physiology, genomics, natural history and ecology of microorganisms. Dr. Bogosian was a postdoctoral fellow in microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Purdue University and a Bachelor of Arts in zoology from Miami University of Ohio.