Did you know that the earth beneath your feet is crawling with life? Well you should: our planet’s soil is a living organism, a fact that thankfully is rapidly gaining recognition and in honour of which the year 2015 was named The Year of the Soils. As the vital importance of healthy soil management is becoming clearer, raising awareness on this matter has become one of AgroFair’s points of focus.

It is a fascinating hidden universe: right beneath us, thousands of microorganism species such as bacteria and fungi (of which we can hardly identify!) form an incredibly complex food chain. Unseen by us they are hard at work, contributing to a rapid decomposition of organic matter and making nutrients and minerals available for the root systems of plants and trees. In the course of food production, mankind has treated this hidden universe – the result of an evolution of millions of years – rather badly, destroying soil life through the large-scale application of synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals. This has created havoc in the delicate and mutually beneficial relations between root systems and these microorganisms, disturbing the delicate balance between disease-carrying (pathogenic) microorganisms and their natural enemies.



Meet one of the beneficial soil microorganisms: the mycorrhiza fungus. The feats that this tiny organism can perform are quite impressive! With its small threads, this fungus can penetrate plant roots and deliver nutrients to the plant. Nutrients that through these threads can be sourced far away from the root system. What’s more, this beneficial little fungus is an efficient eliminator of soil pathogens and besides all that it finds the time to improve the soil structure as well.

Looking for ways to put this little miracle worker to use, AgroFair started a research project among small banana farmers (four in Ecuador and four in Peru) to restore the density of this beneficial fungus in the soil, with fresh injections of mycorrhiza produced by the Dutch company Plant Health Cure (PHC). The hypothesis is that plants treated with mycorrhiza will be stronger and, in the case of banana plants, that they will produce larger bunches of bananas. The project started on October 2016 and will extend over three production cycles.  In 2016 and again in 2017, the project was supported with a modest subsidy from Corporate Social Responsibility The Netherlands (MVO), a Dutch network with over 2,000 affiliated companies.

To see to what extend the injections actually work, the participating farmers manage 4 treated plots and 4 control plots each. On all plots, the height and circumference of the plants are carefully tracked, as are the bananas: by weight and by number of “hands per bunch” when harvested. AgroFair’s own technicians that are based in Ecuador and Peru are responsible for data collection both in the field and in packing stations, and for the registry of these data in a large database.

Absorption capacity of the root system with mycorrhiza

Absorption capacity of the root system without mycorrhiza

Almost one year down the road, there are already some indications that treated plants are stronger, showing more and healthier roots. There are signs that the next generation of plants benefits as well: already the so-called ‘followers’ are larger in size. Of course, valid final conclusions should not be drawn until the close of the project, but so far the signs look promising. In October of 2017, the trial sites in Ecuador and Peru will receive another visit from the PHC company’s soil specialist for a second shot of mycorrhiza. At that point, the preliminary results will be disclosed in workshops with producers and technicians.

It’s enough to make our skin crawl, not with fear but with excitement! By opening up the hidden world of microorganisms we are learning that, if handled wisely, these tiny creatures are of incredible value: healthy and balanced soils help to strengthen plants, increase crops, contribute to rapid decomposition of organic matter, and lock carbon in the soils, which is of course vital for slowing down global warming.

Seeing what amazing things microorganisms do for our planet and how they can be put to effective use in healthy food production, AgroFair has gotten involved in several soil management projects besides this mycorrhiza project. By learning more about the beneficial use of microorganisms, AgroFair, would hope to find ways to stimulate both productivity and climate-smart banana production. The economic and practical feasibility of measures to restore healthy soils on a wider scale is something that the future will have to point out. So far the results look hopeful, which just goes to show that great things can indeed come in tiny sizes…