In a groundbreaking development for agricultural sustainability, a recent large-scale field study has unveiled the remarkable potential of mycorrhizal fungi in enhancing crop yields without the need for additional fertilizers or pesticides. The Swiss study, led by researchers from the University of Zurich and agricultural research center Agroscope, demonstrated that treating farmland soil with Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) can result in a substantial 40% increase in maize yields.
The study involved the application of AMF to 800 trial plots across 54 maize farms, marking a significant step toward securing and boosting global food production. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi naturally occurs in healthy soil, forming tree-like structures known as arbuscules as they penetrate plant roots. These structures increase the plant’s root surface area, thereby enhancing nutrient uptake.
Marcel van der Heijden, the study’s co-lead and a soil ecologist at the University of Zurich and Agroscope, expressed enthusiasm about the findings, stating, “On a quarter of the plots, the mycorrhizal fungi enabled up to 40% better yields. That’s huge.” The study delved into why some plots did not experience a significant yield increase, discovering that the inoculation worked best in the presence of fungal pathogens in the soil.
Co-first author Stefanie Lutz from Agroscope explained, “We discovered that the inoculation functioned best when there were lots of fungal pathogens already in the soil.” This revelation underscores the fungi’s role as a first line of defense against soil-borne pathogens, protecting plants and potentially maintaining yields in the face of pathogen contamination.
In addition to acting as a defense mechanism, these fungi also play a crucial role in nutrient absorption, aiding plants in extracting essential elements from the soil. The study leveraged soil microbiome indicators to predict the success of inoculation in nearly 90% of fields, enabling the anticipation of harvest yields even before the field season.
Klaus Schläppi, co-lead author from the University of Basel, highlighted the significance of predictability in agricultural applications: “This predictability makes it possible to target the use of the fungi in fields where they will work. That’s a crucial element for developing these technologies into a reliable agricultural method.”
The implications of this discovery are profound, potentially reducing the dependence on intensive pesticide and fertilizer use. A 2022 United Nations report revealed that 40% of the world’s soil is moderately or severely degraded, a situation that could worsen to 90%. While the challenge of efficiently applying these fungi on a larger commercial scale remains, the results of the field trial signify a substantial stride toward more sustainable agriculture.
In closing, van der Heijden emphasized, “the results of this field trial represent a big step toward a more sustainable agriculture.” The integration of natural mycorrhizal fungi into farming practices could pave the way for increased yields, reduced environmental impact, and a more resilient global food supply.