Phytobiome: Emerging Potential

A reflection on FFAR’s Phytobiome Convening Event

FFAR Phytobiomes Convening Event participants - Rock Talk BlogIncredible challenges face the agricultural enterprise today: water scarcity, the need to reduce environmental impacts, a changing climate influencing plant productivity. The list goes on and on. As a result, our community must think creatively about how we do more, faster, with less. We have many tools in our toolbox: plant breeding for adaptive traits, integrated pest management, precision agriculture, and new inputs that leave smaller footprints, to name a few. But we’re always on the lookout for knowledge and technologies to accelerate progress and perhaps shift the paradigm of how we look at food production.


The movement to enhance crop production by understanding and manipulating the phytobiome is one promising paradigm
. The phytobiome consists of plants, their environment, and their associated communities of organisms. We’ve
studied the impact of water and nutrients on crops for a long time and know much about how insects and plant diseases affect agricultural productivity. But recent advances in our capacity to characterize the broader plant microbiome, including millions (!) of microbes in soil, on leaf surfaces, and in plant tissues, has opened new opportunities for understanding what makes our cropping systems tick and how to improve them. Integrating our developing understanding of the microbiome with our long history of research in agronomy, plant pathology, soil health, and crop genetics will be a new avenue for meeting always evolving challenges. What if, for example, instead of a 15-year breeding program for new drought-resistant varieties, we could achieve a similar result by managing soil microbes to enhance water use efficiency? How about enhancing the community of beneficial plant-associated microbes through a change in when we plant or apply water or fertilizer, so these microbes enhance a crop’s natural resistance to pests and pathogens?  Lots of opportunity here, so much so that the private sector sees “microbials” as a way of the future in enhancing crop production and are investing accordingly.

In order to take advantage of the emerging potential of the phytobiome, we need a deeper and richer understanding of the complex systems of plants and their biosphere, which are most often totally different when looking across crops and the environments in which they are grown. So here at FFAR we have asked the question, for this important area how should our foundation get involved in funding needed research in phytobiome?  As a first step, FFAR and the American Phytopathological Society (APS) co-hosted the Phytobiomes Convening Event on July 29, with generous sponsorship from APS and The BioAg Alliance. Representatives from academia, industry, nonprofits and government gave lightning talks, participated in panels, and worked in breakout groups to help FFAR prioritize phytobiomes research opportunities. Participants also identified areas of partnership in the pre-competitive space where FFAR might collaborate with co-sponsors to create a phytobiome funding opportunity.

This is an extraordinary opportunity to develop programming in a space that benefits the agricultural community broadly, contributing to public sector knowledge and stimulating innovation in the private sector. We look forward to releasing a summary of the meeting outcomes to the broader agricultural community and continuing to engage with the community as we move forward.

Dr. Sally Rockey, Executive Director

Thoughts on important paths forward for phytobiomes? Leave a comment below or reach out to Dr. Tawny Mata, scientific program director.

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Overcoming Water Scarcity

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Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area addressed water use efficiency in agriculture by developing water conservation and reuse technologies, improving crop and livestock breeds, creating improved agronomic practices, increasing the social and economic tractability of conservation practices and enhancing the efficacy of Extension services.

FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area builds on earlier work to increase water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reduces agricultural water pollution and develops water reuse technologies.

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms Challenge Area increased soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation, and enabling adoption of existing or new innovative practices that improve soil health.

The Soil Health Challenge Area advances existing research and identifies linkages between farm productivity and soil health, while also addressing barriers to the adoption of soil health practices.

Protein Challenge

Protein Challenge

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Protein Challenge Area sought to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins.

The Advance Animal Systems challenge area supports sustainable animal production through environmentally sound productions practices and advancement in animal health and welfare. Additionally, the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area develops non-traditional crops, including plant-based proteins, and creates new economic opportunities for conventional crops to increase future crop diversity and farm profitability.

Food Waste and Loss

Food Waste and Loss

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FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area addresses food waste and loss and supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.

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Supporting innovation is necessary for sustainable results. Over the last 50 years, farmers have tripled global food production thanks to agricultural innovations. Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability was a 2016-2018 Challenge Area that focused on understanding the barriers and processes that prevented the adoption of technology and research results into sustainable practices.

Urban Food Systems

Urban Food Systems

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The 2016-2018 Urban Food Systems Challenge Area addressed feeding urban populations through urban and peri-urban agriculture and augmenting the capabilities of our current food system.

The Urban Food Systems Challenge Area continues this work and enhances our ability to feed urban populations.

Making My Plate Your Plate

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Making My Plate Your Plate Challenge Area focused on helping Americans meet the USDA 2015 Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, including research to both produce and provide access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.