Phytobiomes: Embracing Complexity to Achieve a New Vision for Agriculture
Posted 2nd October 2017 by Jane Williams
Imagine a world in which farmers have at their disposal analytical tools that help them determine the crop, management practices, and inputs to apply to a specific field in a given year, taking into consideration all physical (climate, soil…) and biological conditions (microbes, pests, disease, weeds, animals…)
Traditionally, agricultural sciences have adopted a linear approach to understanding productivity, focusing on understanding the parts individually. Some people only work on soil, others on plant genetics, others on microbiomes or weather and the environment. Some people might cover one or two of these disciplines, rarely more. While this allows us to make some gains in productivity, it does not allow us to truly optimise production of food, feed, and fibre because all of these parts interact with each other at many different levels.
Agricultural systems are in fact governed by non-linear interactions and multiple environmental variables. To optimise productivity, sustainability, and profitability on farms, grasslands, and forests, scientists must embrace the complexity and address the entire system. To do that, we must focus on deciphering all of the interactions within phytobiomes.
A phytobiome is a plant (“phyto”) in a distinct geographical unit (“biome”) – a field, grassland, or forest. It includes the plant itself, all micro- and macro-organisms living in, on, or around the plant – such as microbes, animals and other plants – and the environment, including soil, air, water, weather, and climate.
Because interactions within phytobiomes are dynamic and complex, we need to build a foundation of systems-level knowledge of various phytobiomes. This must include an understanding of how the different components interact and influence each other and empower the development of predictive and prescriptive analytics for use in next generation precision agricultural systems.
An International Alliance
Established in 2016, the International Research for Phytobiomes Alliance is an international, nonprofit consortium of academic institutions, large and small companies, and governmental agencies. By coordinating public-private research projects on phytobiomes, the goal of the Alliance is to develop a foundation of knowledge on phytobiomes and to translate that knowledge into applications for farmers, ranchers, and foresters. They aim to achieve a totally new vision for agriculture in which farmers, ranchers, and land managers use adaptive, data-driven, on-farm systems to manage the physical and biological aspects of their fields for optimal, profitable, and sustainable productivity.
Kellye Eversole is President of Eversole Associates, an agricultural science and technology consulting firm, the Executive Director of the International Phytobiomes Alliance, and Executive Director of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium.
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