The Soil Renaissance and Phytobiomes Initiative announced a collaboration aimed at understanding how soil health and the broader phytobiomes in which plants exist impact food production for a growing population.

In December 2013, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Farm Foundation, NFP, launched the Soil Renaissance to bring attention to soil health's critical role in feeding a global population that will increase from 7.5 billion people today to more than 9 billion by 2050. Likewise, the American Phytopathological Society (APS) recently initiated the Phytobiomes Initiative to understand the entire system of factors that affect crop plants, including living organisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, nematodes, etc.), soils and the environment.

"Soil and the plants that grow in it are the foundation of life. They work in unison to serve as the basis for all of life," said Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation. "It only makes sense then that the two major initiatives – one focused on soil, one focused on the entire biome (i.e., a geographical area) that impacts plants – should work together to solve the pressing problem of how to increase food production."

The Phytobiomes Initiative differs from other microbiome projects because it takes a "systems" approach by going beyond the microbial communities associated with plants to examine the interactions of all factors that affect plants. It also focuses on exploring the biomes related to plants used for food, feed and fiber. While it spans the complete spectrum from foundational to applied science, it zeroes in on the downstream goal of doubling the production of safe and nutritious food and feed.

"Just as the Soil Renaissance is bringing attention to the role of soil health in agricultural productivity, the Phytobiomes Initiative is focused on bringing attention, funding, and research coordination toward creating a whole system approach to improve quality and safety," said Jan Leach, Ph.D., chair of the APS Public Policy Board and University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. "Our goal is to pull together diverse disciplines, societies, and policies to understand interactions among plants, animals, and the environment. The Phytobiomes Initiative promotes an examination of the entire system, not just the individual pieces."

The Phytobiomes Initiative's principal goal is to have a sufficient understanding of the entire phytobiome of food, feed and fiber crops by 2025 to enable improved agricultural productivity. Being able to see the full picture of interactions within the biomes will allow us to push precision agriculture to a new level that permits growers and producers to use the best mix of inputs for higher sustainability, safety, productivity and quality based on the conditions of each biome or field.

"We are interested in plant health and plant productivity, which is dependent on healthy soil," Leach said. "If we don't have a healthy system – as in the entire phytobiome that takes care of the plant – then we cannot achieve our goal. This is critical for agricultural production in the future and for protecting and conserving the environment. It speaks volumes that these two national initiatives are coming to the same consensus about understanding and paying attention to our agricultural systems."