Dr Nicola Holden, from Applied Microbiology International’s Food Security Scientific Advisory Group, reports back on the AMI conference ’The Power of Microbes in Sustainable Crop Production’, recently held at the John Innes Centre in the UK.

For those of us immersed in microbiology, it is obvious that microbes hold many of the solutions to, and indeed still cause many problems of, our global challenges.

However, it is much less obvious to others, and this can lead to serious knowledge or evidence gaps.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals act as a focal point for global grand challenges. Our group on Food Security centres on UN SDG 2, towards Zero Hunger. To provide a secure supply of food implies that there is sufficient safe and nutritious food that is available to all. Our group wanted to spark the conversation about how applied microbiology could help address issues sustainable crop production.

Global importance

Crop production has high relevance nationally in the UK, and internationally because of the global nature of food chains, and the global impact from food production practices. It includes aspects of soil functions as well as crop productivity and disease. The challenge of climatic change pervades every aspect of production and is itself a major driver for change.

PROMOTED: AMI has teamed up with Qiagen to help you get the highest yields from your DNA Extractions. Get your free guide here.

The workshop was an excellent forum to bring all of these aspects together to understand how to apply microbiology could contribute.

To set the scene, Yvonne Pinto from  Eagle Genomics talked about the promise and some of the hype around the soil microbiota. Key points were around seeding the plant microbiota from the soil, and the potential of enhancing plant-microbe interactions. The need for more general knowledge in this area was highlighted as a limitation.

Thomas Bell from Imperial College focused on two examples of perturbations to the microbiota and their impact. These gave insights into the unpredictable consequences that can arise, and presented ‘tipping’ points that affect community composition response.

Changing systems

Fiona Brennan from Teagasc told us about the changing face of agricultural systems. She raised the major factors around heterogeneity in the soil microbiota and food webs, with the fundamental requirement to consider ecological interactions. She also warned against over-promising to the end-user groups.

Leo van Overbeek from Wageningen examined risks from the unintended consequences of circular agricultural practices that can introduce human pathogens or antibiotic resistance into crop production. His presentation picked up the common themes of cross-stress protection, and ecological interactions, with the need for knowledge of the indigenous communities.

With this fresh in mind, we moved to the discussion session. Our two chairs, Christon Watson (SRUC) and Ashish Malik (Aberdeen) set the scene for the two areas of focus: Soil Health, and Resilience to the effect of Climate Change, respectively.

Christine showcased the need for long-term experimental cropping platforms, while Ashish raised the need for an integrated ecological approach. Both sets of discussions focused on environmental conditions, with lots of reference to the recent flooding events in the UK (Storm Babet) and the impacts on primary production systems.

Enthusiastic discussion

In summary there was a good deal of enthusiasm to fuel the discussions. It is clearly a big topic that needs to hear from a range of voices.

As it stands, we have a lot of unknowns in how to effectively apply microbes or even understand the impact of crop production systems on the microbes. Nonetheless, there are some actions that need to be taken now.

An important first step is ensuring that microbes and microbiology are fully considered in crop production systems, especially in light of the direct impacts of climatic change, or in changes to farming practices to mitigate it. That requires increasing the awareness of the application of microbiology and microbiological knowledge beyond the scientists, out to the practitioners and end-users.

It needs an honest and ongoing dialogue so that expectations are realistic, and that new findings have the space to be aired. It’s a two-way conversation, so also helps to refine the direction of where the scientific effort needs to be to address the questions. That takes the time for engagement and collaboration, but organisations like AMI are there to bring all interested parties together.

To find out more about Applied Microbiology International’s forthcoming events programme, click HERE.