The debate about the future of agriculture is growing ever more controversial, reflecting the enormous challenges ahead: On the one hand, the rising world population will require agricultural production to increase by 50 percent by 2050 (compared to 2012). On the other hand, we need to protect the environment, and do so better than we have in the past. It looks a bit like squaring the circle.
That being said, it is also true that a lot has already been achieved. At the beginning of the 20th century, on average one North American farmer produced enough food for four people; today, one farmer in North America can feed over 150 people. This was made possible by an enormous increase in productivity, which has been the key to feeding a growing global population and was fueled by developments in mechanization (tractors), chemistry (synthetic fertilizers and crop protection products), and genetics (more productive crop varieties).
While these developments have been critical to the growth of our society at large, they have also come at a cost. Plowing fields destroys the soil structure and releases CO2 into the air, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers contaminate water sources and account for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and crop protection chemicals may partly persist in the environment and affect non-target species.
CEO of Joyn Bio
There is no question that further breakthrough innovations are needed to grow enough food to feed the planet sustainably and economically.
“The potential of microbes in agriculture is vast but largely untapped”
One solution that’s gaining momentum for its potential across several industries, and in agriculture particularly, are microorganisms. Microbes are proving to be fruitful mechanisms in everything from pharmaceuticals to textiles and in our case, making agriculture more sustainable. There are an estimated trillion different microbes that offer naturally occurring properties – some have been proven to protect plants against pests and diseases or to convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use.
Principal Expert Biotechnology at Bayer
The potential of microbes in agriculture is vast but largely untapped – the goal at Joyn Bio is to change that trajectory.
Joyn Bio is building a platform for developing microbial agricultural solutions that consistently perform as well as – if not better than – the current chemical solutions that often contribute to environmental detriments, like dead zones, climate change, and contaminated water sources.
Joyn’s platform is built on the deep expertise and technical capacity of two companies – Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks – that have played an integral role in developing the agriculture and synthetic biology industries, respectively. In other words, Joyn sits squarely at the intersection of synthetic biology and agriculture, engineering microbes with unrivaled scale, throughput and speed. Through this unique structure, Joyn is able to identify the best strain for the job and optimize it as an effective agricultural solution.
Reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer
One current focus of the Joyn platform is engineering a microbe that significantly reduces (by one third, or more) the need for traditional, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for cereal crops such as corn or wheat. Nitrogen is the primary limiting factor for plant growth and yield. While it makes up the majority of the air we breathe, only a handful of plants – like soybeans, for example – can convert nitrogen from the air into nutrients. Major cereal crops such as corn and wheat can’t utilize atmospheric nitrogen and rely on nitrogen fertilizer to grow to their full potential. Similar to other key developments in agriculture, the invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has been a huge driver of productivity. But the way it is currently used is not environmentally sustainable, and growers are looking for innovative alternatives that deliver equal or better results.
Joyn Bio is working hard to realize a future where plants can receive nitrogen with the help of an engineered microbe that can fix it from the air, and we also see endless potential for engineered microbes across a number of agricultural applications. Agriculture can be a hugely impactful player for solving environmental challenges at a global scale and we believe engineered microbes are one (important) part of that puzzle.