Farm Food Facts

Dr. Parameswaran, Meagan Kaiser, Cover Crop Benefits

July 23, 2019 Episode 34
Farm Food Facts
Dr. Parameswaran, Meagan Kaiser, Cover Crop Benefits
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Dr. Parameswaran, Meagan Kaiser, Cover Crop Benefits
Jul 23, 2019 Episode 34
USFRA, Dr. Parameswaran, Meagan Kaiser, Phil Lempert
Show Notes Transcript


Today's Thought Leader is Dr. Poornima Parameswaran, President and Co-owner of Trace Genomics

The Stories YOU need to know:

  • How we can Suppress Pathogens on Farms, Naturally.  
  • USDA takes stock of Cover Crop Benefits.

Our farmer is Meagan Kaiser, Soil Scientist at Perry Agricultural Laboratory






Phil Lempert:
0:01
Farm, Food, Facts: where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Welcome to Farm, Food, Facts for Wednesday, July 24th, 2019. I'm your host Phil Lempert. Today, our thought leader is Dr. Poornima Parameswaran, who is the co-founder and president of Trace Genomics. Her Ph.d. is in microbiology and immunology from Stanford, where she worked with Nobel laureate Dr. Andrew Fire. She's the author on 12 publications where she pioneered the use of genomics technologies to address fundamental questions in microbial diseases. Trace Genomics was the winner and the main investment at the FoodShot Global Innovating Soil 3.0 competition. Poornima, Welcome to Farm, Food, Facts.
Poornima:
0:50
Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here.
Phil Lempert:
0:52
So, congratulations about winning the FoodShot award. Tell us a bit about Trace Genomics and what you hope to achieve.
Poornima:
1:01
Sure. So, at Trace Genomics, we have a very simple genetic test for soil that farmers can use to make the right decisions about planting: what to plant, when to plant, and also what types of inputs and management practices that they should be applying and using on their farm. And really, the goal is for us to make the data below ground - the soil genomics data - accessible and actionable for farmers because until now, farmers have not been able to access the biology of the soil to make real time farming decisions.
Phil Lempert:
1:38
What you're saying to me makes a lot of common sense. The question that I've got is whether the DNA of soil on the top layer, middle level, and lower level could actually be different?
Poornima:
1:52
That's an excellent question. And yes, they are actually different. And the way in which we- I would say it's a question that our scientists in house actually have tested to help overcome that problem. It's still a question that we are continuing to address with testing out different ways of sampling, different depths of sampling. So, what matters to us is that we standardize the way in which soil samples are collected from the fields. And so, that allows us to control for the variability in terms of, where is the soil samples coming from? Is it coming from just the top six inches? Is it coming from 18 to 24 inches? Is it coming from somewhere in between? So, all of that information is actually captured as part of every soil sample that gets sent to us and we are able to optimize what our insights look like for the database of samples that come from that particular depth of soil sample. It's also very much dependent on type of crops, right? For some crops, typically the soil cores are taken at zero to six inch depths. For other crops, the soil samples are typically taken at 18 to 24 inch depths. And so, we - by plugging and playing into the existing sampling regiments that are very much crop dependent, that are very much dependent on the type of insights and soil biology data that the farmer wants to see, which is how deep do the roots go, right? - we're already plugging and playing into that and that allows us to standardize our soil biology data insights for farmers who are farming a particular type of crop.
Phil Lempert:
3:44
So, I am clearly not a microbiologist so my next question might seem a bit odd, or to you, might say, this guy doesn't know what he's asking me. Now that you can look at the DNA, is it possible that the next level utilizes biotechnologies such as CRISPR that you could go in and you know, adjust certain genes, turn them off and on to make that soil healthier?
Poornima:
4:12
The only limiting factor here is technology and rate of deployment of technology. So, when we are looking at soil microbiology, we are able to provide a snapshot of what organisms are there in the soil. Are there good organisms that are important for plant growth and for plant nutrition? Or are there bad organisms - the ones that cause diseases in plants? And we identify what organisms are there, but we also look at the functionality in the soil, like what genes are present in the soil that allow for these good and bad functionalities to happen? And the way in which we are currently giving this information to farmers is in a very simple report where we say, Hey, this is your disease risk in your soils. And these are, for example, the nutrient cycling capabilities that you have a green light or you have a red light for, which you should be worried about those particular soil biology functionalities missing in your soil and you should come in with management practices or with the right inputs to better your soil functionality in nutrient cycling. So, we'll give the farmer the ability to look at those types of insights into their soil. What you're alluding to is the ability to use this information for development of other technologies like CRISPR that could also at the end of the day help a farmer farm better; better genetics or just better soil properties in general. And, absolutely. That is exactly the type of platform that Trace Genomics is building. We are lazer focused on giving farmers insights. But this type of information is absolutely very valuable for other biotech companies that are looking to develop the right traits for farming of the future.
Phil Lempert:
6:15
So, if people want to know more information about Trace Genomics, where should they go?
Poornima:
6:20
They can go onto our website, which is www.tracegenomics.com. They can also reach out directly to me. My email is poornima@tracegenomics.com. We also have contact information on our website. And we're fully commercial, happy to engage with customers. We're fully commercial in specialty crops; we are setting up proxies to launch for row crops for the 2020 growing season, so stay tuned that, but we'd love to hear from everyone.
Phil Lempert:
6:50
Terrific. Well thanks so much for joining us today on Farm, Food, Facts and congratulations for winning the FoodShot Global Innovating Soil 3.0 prize.
Poornima:
6:59
Thank you so much for having us.
Phil Lempert:
7:06
And now, for the news. How we can suppress pathogens on farms, naturally. It may come as a surprise, but new research has found that dung beetles and soil bacteria may be better natural suppressants of harmful human pathogens than removing hedgerows, ponds, and other habitats as a means of keeping wild animals out of farms. Dung beetles and soil bacteria can naturally suppress E. coli and other harmful pathogens before they're able to spread to humans, performing as a preliminary link in the food safety chain. This research appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology. Dr. Matthew Jones, who led the research stated the following, "Reduced use of broad spectrum insecticides and wormicides have been found to encourage dung beetle populations." This study looked carefully at two pathways through which organic farm management can help contribute to creating an environment that better suppresses pathogens. First, organic farms tend to build more organic matter in their soil. The organic matter promotes diverse microbial communities, which suppresses foodborne pathogens. Second, organic farms often hosts diverse dung beetle collectives that bury feces below ground, making it extremely difficult for pathogens to survive. Food safety regulations tend to pressure growers to remove hedgerows and other natural habitats that farmers utilize to keep out pathogen-carrying wildlife, like wild pigs. However, removing these types of habitats could decrease biodiversity and make the farm land less welcoming to pollinators and other beneficial insects and birds. Discouraging biodiversity, on the farm as some food safety management plans may suggest, is actually counterproductive. As an alternative, growers should welcome and encouraged dung beetles and soil bacteria that can help keep harmful bacteria in check. What grocers need to know is that farmers are working hard to ensure proper food safety practices.
:
9:10
And in other soil health-related news, USDA takes stock of cover crop benefits. A new report from the USDA discovered that farmers are likely to see returns from planting cover crops within three years if the practice is being used to deal with herbicide resistant weeds, to graze livestock, or to reverse soil degradation. This report is based on analysis of five years of data from approximately 500 farms, which is the largest multi-year data set that's ever been compiled in regards to showing how yields respond to cover crops. The report coincides with some farm groups and environmental advocates encouraging producers to adopt the cover crop practice because of its environmental and climate mitigation benefits; for example, preventing soil erosion, protecting water quality, and sequestering more carbon. After just the first year of planting cover crops, farmers on average saw their corn yields increase by half of a percent and their soybean yields increased by 2.1%. After five years, corn and soybean yields increased by 4% and 5%. In addition, during the 2012 drought, most farms saw a significantly bigger boost in yields as a result of cover-cropping. Corn yields increased by 6% and soybeans by 11.4% because of the effects on rainfall and filtration, reduced soil evaporation, and overall improved soil quality. What grocers need to know is that there is good news on the horizon, as farmers are working hard to increase yields while battling climate change.
Phil Lempert:
10:51
Meagan Kaiser is a soil scientist at Perry Agriculture Laboratory in Bowling Green, Missouri. Meagan and her husband Mark have one son, also named Mark. Meagan and Mark farm corn and soybeans alongside Mark's family on Kaiser Family Farms in Carollton, Missouri. She serves on the United Soybean Board Executive Committee as the Demand Action Team Chair. Meagan, welcome to Farm, Food, Facts.
Poornima:
11:16
Thank you for having me.
Phil Lempert:
11:17
So Meagan, you've seen the film 30 Harvests. What does that mean to agriculture and the entire food industry? About the message and what's in there?
Meagan:
11:28
Well, personally I think it brings hope and really a new energy, that we're doing something so much bigger than ourselves. I think one of my favorite things about the film is kind of thinking about how our sustainability story on our farm doesn't end at our farm gate. That what we do on our land, it lends to the sustainability story really of every end user and consumer of our products. For instance, soybean oil has long been just kind of the byproduct of crushing soybeans. But now we're seeing that the oil itself can be a replacement for so many petroleum products and things like biodiesel and bioheat. And that when we use those products, the carbon that's emitted is actually then recaptured by our next soybean crop. So, it's much more of a carbon cycle rather than a carbon emission. I think that's really exciting.
Phil Lempert:
12:26
Meagan, in the film, besides having this powerful message, you also played a role in the film and you're the one who actually coined the phrase 30 Harvests. Tell me what it was about to experience that kind of very different career path than what you do today.
Poornima:
12:44
Well, you know, to be honest, the timing of the film ended up being far more personal to my husband and I than I had expected. This year, flooding has completely covered our entire farm all season and there won't be a harvest for us this year. And when I put a picture on Twitter of our farm underwater, someone asked why we wouldn't just turn our farm into a lake. And that really, that cut us pretty hard. And I kind of identified with the film in just questioning, why do we do this? But the reason is that we have a humanitarian imperative to farm. One acre of corn with an average of 150 bushels provides enough kilocalories to feed 10 people for an entire year. Not a day or a week, but an entire year. And we're learning that now we have such a larger role to play in reducing carbon emissions, not only for our industry of agriculture, but the entire population. We can play a role in really helping our climate. So, I think seeing the film energized us to keep the faith and to start working on how we can make our land better and more productive once the water recedes. And then we'll be back at it next year.
Phil Lempert:
14:11
So Meagan, I'm going to ask you a very tacky question. Let me say you won't have a harvest this year. That must put a lot of financial pressure on your family.
Poornima:
14:22
It does. We are glad that we have invested in the crop insurance program and that we have protected ourselves. We could have never imagined that this year would be so devastating. But you know, that keeps us basically in business. It's not an income. We are diversified, my husband and I also have a precision agriculture business and I work at Perry Agricultural Laboratory as a soil scientist. But you know, all of our diversity is within agriculture. So, it is a tough time. But we also know that we're not alone. You know, there's a lot of people that even if they weren't completely flooded have really fought the rains this year, and then some other areas are fighting the drought and it's been a tough year.
Phil Lempert:
15:17
Let me go back into the lab for a moment to the other side of your career. What are you doing in the lab to hopefully help all farmers and help all agriculture really understand the power of soil?
Poornima:
15:34
Well, in our lab we use chemistry to not only find out just what the actual nutrients in the soil are, but we also focus on the chemical aspects indicating the soil structure, and having enough air space and pore space for water, and how that physical structure then helps stimulate the biological activity and those microbes helps in nutrient turnover and stimulates the soil health and the soil life. One of the things I love to tell people, in working here at the laboratory, I meet farmers from all over the world, and farmers are smart. They work every day to make their soil healthier or more balanced and more productive. And when we do that, we unlock the power of linking soil health to animal health and even human health. And so, I think the future of that aspect is so exciting because we were starting to talk about things like nutri-ceuticals and increasing the nutrient profile of our food. And really, what more do farmer's want than to the sustainably nourish society?
Phil Lempert:
16:40
Well, Meagan, keep up the good work. I'm praying for you that the land is going to dry out soon and you're gonna have a great harvest next year.
Poornima:
16:50
I appreciate that very much. Thank you.
Phil Lempert:
16:52
For more information on all things food and agriculture, and to listen to our archives, please visit fooddialogues.com under the Programs and Media tab, and visit us on Facebook at U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance or on Twitter at USFRA. Until next time.
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