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Fungi, soil-living bacteria help developing world farmers to better crop yields: UN

Fungi, soil-living bacteria help developing world farmers to better crop yields: UN

Fungi and soil-living bacteria, instead of artificial fertilizers, are improving crop yields, boosting harvests, and saving money for some developing world farmers, according to a United Nations project aimed at understanding and harnessing “below ground biodiversity” for sustaining, restoring and improving land fertility.

The project, implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) with financial support from the independent Global Environment Facility (GEF), involves Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Indonesia, India, Kenya, Mexico and Uganda, UNEP said, adding that it was also aimed at cataloguing the variety of below ground life forms from worms and beetles to fungi and bacteria.

“When people think of where new species might be found, they tend to think of the rainforests, mangroves or locations like mountain tops—not millimetres beneath their toes,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

“Harvesting the secrets of this understudied realm promises huge benefits in terms of delivering sustainable development and overcoming poverty by helping to restore the fertility of damaged and degraded lands and by naturally reducing the need for chemicals from fertilizers up to pesticides”, he added.

Experts believe that below ground life forms represent the biggest source of untapped and unknown life on Earth and thus a potential source of new drugs up to pharmaceutical and industrial products.

UNEP said that the improvements were highlighted by farmers operating in and around Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in northern Mexico, although the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (TSBF-CIAT) – which is coordinating the project – said that similar findings to those in Mexico were emerging in Africa.

“Preliminary calculations indicate that the benefits in terms of inorganic fertilizer saved, in other words what would have been required to get the same yield, amounts to around $180 million a year, with Nigeria and South Africa seeing some of the biggest benefits”, said Jeroen Huising, the project’s coordinator at TSBF.

“These preliminary findings underline not only the economic and environmental importance of below ground diversity but also the need to conserve it. Among the key findings emerging from all countries involved in this project is that intensive agriculture can significantly reduce soil life forms and therefore its fertility and productivity”, he added.