Microbial business thrives as farmers realise need to feed soil to feed crops

Microbial business thrives as farmers realise need to feed soil to feed crops

Given the importance of soil health, and the need to boost plant immunity, Kan Biosys' Sandeepa Kanitkar feels the industry needs government support. Currently, biopesticides bear a GST of 18%, which is punishing

The market for microbials that boost or protect crop yields is growing at a compounded annual rate of 10-15% and should be worth about ₹6,000 crore in the next five years, Sandeepa Kanitkar, founder and chairman and managing director of Kan Biosys, said in an interview with The Federal.

Her Pune-based company, founded in 2005, has a collection of about 10,000 soil microbial strains and 23 products in the market, including a biofungicide, which Bayer, an agrochemicals company, is co-branding and selling to grape growers. The product, Milastin K, as per Kanitkar, was the first biofungicide to be registered in India.

Sandeepa Kanitkar, Kan Biosys
Sandeepa Kanitkar, founder and CMD of Kan Biosys

Food safety concerns, a worry about chemical residues, plateauing yields from chemical-based agriculture, the rising cost of cultivation, soil degradation and climate change concerns are spurring interest in microbials, Kanitkar said.

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The huge regulatory cost and the time period of six to 10 years for obtaining approvals for new crop protection molecules are also a trigger, she said. The efficacy of biopesticides may not compare with that of chemical agents, but they do the work with a smaller carbon footprint.

Soil microbes

The use efficiency of nitrogenous fertilisers is about 40%. This means that if 120 kg of urea is applied to a hectare of wheat, 72 kg gets evaporated as ammonia or is washed away, resulting in algal blooms. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria have an enzyme called nitrogenase which helps them absorb nitrogen in the air and give it to plants as ammonia. Some of them are symbiotic, like the ones found in root nodules of cowpea, soybean, mungbean and fenugreek. Others live in the rhizosphere or root zone of plants. These can improve the use efficiency of nitrogenous fertilisers by 20-40%, Kanitkar added.

There are also phosphorous solubilising bacteria, which are needed, for example, in the acidic soils of the Western Ghats to release phosphorous that gets converted into aluminium and ferrous phosphates when DAP or Single Superphosphate is applied. In the Deccan Plateau, the soil is high in calcium, and calcium phosphates are formed.

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Soil microbes also perform a similar function with potash. By boosting yields without wasteful application of fertilisers, soil microbes raise agricultural output with lower environmental damage in the form of emissions or leachates.

Organic matter to suppor microbes

But microbes can work only when soil health is maintained. They need organic matter to live and thrive. They can be used independently when the organic carbon content of the soil is 5-6%, which is difficult to achieve in a tropical country like India where it gets oxidised.

Kanitkar said most Indian soils are degraded and their carbon content is around 0.6%. In some sugarcane-producing areas of Maharashtra, it is as low as 0.3%. Farmers can heal the soil by using farmyard manure, vermicompost and crop residue along with biofertilisers and gradually reduce the application of chemical products.

Kanitkar, who is an industrial microbiologist, said she started work on soil microbes in 1991. Her father-in-law was a crop physiologist and had about 2,000 nitrogen-fixing microbes in an outfit called Krishi Tantra Sansthan, which would supply microbes in a lignite base to the Maharashtra Agro Industries Development Corporation (MAIDC).

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In 1993, according to her, she developed a liquid biofertiliser with dormant microbes for which she got a patent and also the President’s Award a few years later. She said that all her products are tested at agricultural universities and in farmers’ fields and registered either under the Fertiliser Control Order or with the Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee.

Given the importance of soil health, and the need to boost plant immunity, Kanitkar feels the industry needs government support. Currently, biopesticides bear a GST of 18%, which is punishing.

Regenerative agriculture

She wants the farmers to be incentivised either with interest subvention or a discount in crop insurance premium if they practice regenerative agriculture (cultivation with no or minimal soil disturbance, mulching, integrated pest management, crop rotation and use of manure or vermicompost). Application of nutrients after testing the soil should be insisted upon.

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A subsidy could also be given, because the reduction in chemical fertiliser use, apart from being good for the environment also cuts down the import bill of fertilisers which are highly subsidised. “Feed the soil to feed the plant,” Kanitkar said.

Regenerative agriculture will make microbial colonies in soil thrive and sustain themselves. She said she began with grape growers of Maharashtra, whose export consignments would get rejected because of chemical agents used to control mildew during the pre-harvest interval. Once they saw the benefit, they used her products on fruit and vegetable crops and broad acre ones like rice, cotton and sugarcane.

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Agrochemical and fertiliser companies are branching into biofertilisers and biopesticides, Kanitkar said.

The big companies have deep pockets and marketing heft. They will collaborate with companies like hers which do the innovation and production. It is an ecosystem that mimics the symbiotic plant relationship of some of her products.

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