Fungus Could Be the Key to Avoiding a Global Food Crisis

Issie Lapowsky, Wired Magazine | 9/11/14

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Our world is sitting on a time bomb.

According to a United Nations report, climate change is poised to decimate the global food supply, with agricultural production expected to decline as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century. Meanwhile, the world population will only increase, almost certainly driving up demand for these crops by as much as 14 percent every decade. That means food prices will soar, communities plagued by hunger will go even hungrier, and, many experts fear, countries will fight for food, just as they have for oil.

The good news is unorthodox companies like Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies are working to reverse this harrowing trend. The Seattle startup, founded in 2008, has developed an organic seed treatment it calls BioEnsure that allows agricultural crops like rice and corn to withstand severe droughts and extreme temperatures. It’s based on fungi that company CEO Dr. Rusty Rodriguez and his wife, Dr. Regina Redman, discovered some 20 years ago, that enables plants to grow in extreme heat.

After spending decades perfecting and field-testing the formulation, Adaptive is preparing to bring BioEnsure to market this fall. It’s an innovation that, if successfully adopted by the agricultural industry, could not only help ensure global food safety, but reduce our dependence on harmful chemicals.

“We believe it holds the potential to improve the lives of millions of people who need to produce food in difficult conditions,” says Christian Holmes, global water coordinator at United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, the government agency that helps provide aid to foreign countries.

Adaptive recently was chosen as one of 17 nominees for USAID’s Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge, a partnership between USAID and the governments of Sweden and the Netherlands, which will award $32 million in funding to innovations in the water and food security space. “We reject the idea that there’s a point of no return,” Holmes says. “What we need are breakthrough solutions like this that can reach millions of people really quickly.”

A Fortunate Discovery

Adaptive’s revolutionary discovery started as an argument between geeks.

It was the mid-1990s and Rodriguez and Redman were working as biologists—Rodriguez at the US Geological Survey and Redman at Montana State University. One day over lunch with colleagues, an argument erupted over whether environments with more diverse plant life are less tolerant of extreme conditions. And so, they went to the most extreme place they could think of to find out the answer: the depths of Yellowstone National Park.

Temperatures there range from 68°F to a scorching 150°F, and geologists had previously classified the soil as sterile. And yet, while in the park, the scientists found that, in fact, some plants did grow there. When they analyzed the plants, the researchers discovered they had been colonized by microscopic fungi and began to question what role the fungi played in allowing the plants to grow.

“It was quite a paradigm shift in the way people view plant adaptation,” he adds. Rodriguez, Redman, and their fellow researchers began to wonder: If this fungi could live within agricultural crops, would it still protect them from harsh climates? In lab experiments, they were able to remove the fungi and found that without it, those very plants no longer could survive in similarly hot conditions. When the fungi was reintroduced, they thrived. “The long and short of it was, though these plants had been in this habitat for a millennia, and had allegedly adapted to the heat stress, it turned out, they weren’t adapted at all,” Rodriguez says. Instead, it was the fungi that enabled the plants to survive.

It could, and it did. In 2008, Redman founded Adaptive and spent years tinkering with different fungal organisms to develop a blend that could be mass produced and applied to many different crops. In 2012, Rodriguez, and Zachery Grey, Adaptive’s vice president of business development, joined her to help commercialize the product.

‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ Results

Adaptive has since developed treatments for corn, rice, soybean, and wheat, and it’s working on treatment for vegetables and other crops. The company, currently certified to operate in 18 states, has been running thousands of field tests across the country over the last three years with farmers, universities, seed distributors, and the USDA, and so far, Rodriguez says, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

During the drought that destroyed much of the cropland in the Midwest in 2012, for instance, BioEnsure-treated corn crops generated 85 percent more yield than plants that were not treated. And in temperate climates, BioEnsure has been proven to increase output by 3 to 20 percent. What’s more, says Grey, BioEnsure appears to be particularly effective on organic crops, which aren’t treated with chemicals and other additives for protection.

All this has made BioEnsure particularly intriguing to the domestic agricultural industry and aid organizations, like USAID, working in the developing world, says Rodriguez. “There’s a real thirst, if you will, for generating stress tolerant crops, particularly drought tolerant crops that require less input—water being one of those inputs,” he says. “It’s kind of the holy grail of agriculture.”

Playing By Their Rules

But in the United States, agriculture is an industry that is as entrenched as it is massive, and Adaptive just happens to be straddling the fine line between being a savior and a threat. Decades of environmental instability have enabled the agricultural industry to develop—and profit from—its own set of chemical treatments. And while, BioEnsure can be used alongside those chemicals, it might also decrease the need for them, because it yields crops that are both healthier and more resilient. As Rodriguez points out, that could anger many of Adaptive’s potential customers.

“A lot of multinationals make a lot of money on these chemicals,” he says, “so we have to be very careful how we walk that line.”

That means the potential for Adaptive to truly ensure food safety, both in terms of supply and quality, could be thwarted by the company’s own clients. And yet, Rodriguez says, the company is willing to play by the agriculture industry’s rules in pursuit of a greater good. “We’re not trying to get the establishment to adapt to our product. We’re trying to adapt our product to the establishment,” he says. “We believe we’ve developed technology that can drastically mitigate the impact of climate change on food production. That’s been our major motivator.”

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