Reprogramming soil microbes to produce nitrogen sustainably
More than 100 years ago, synthetic fertilizer was introduced to the world, fundamentally changing agriculture. Suddenly, 19th century worries about feeding growing urban populations while rural labor was shrinking were assuaged — unlimited access to nitrogen meant farms could scale freely using less labor than before. In this new century of mechanized farming and exploding global populations, both farmers and scientists have come to understand that we can no longer rely on synthetic fertilizer – its long-term impact on soil and the overall environment is too high. Instead, we need a new agricultural approach which not only increases yields for farmers but can also contribute to a hardier agricultural system and less damage to the land, and water.
At DCVC, we believe that the most difficult challenges of global economic systems, like agriculture, can be solved through novel computational approaches that enable transformative technologies to scale cost-effectively. These challenges are often ones that we wouldn’t think about in our everyday life, like creating new materials to manufacture goods without the devastating pollution of petrochemicals or building safe, clean energy alternatives to sustain our way of life. Dramatically reshaping our agricultural systems to eliminate the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is another, and it is why DCVC led the Seed and Series A of Pivot Bio and has continued to be major backer.
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer requires farmers to pay careful attention to weather patterns, as the expensive fertilizer can wash right off of soil or blow away in the increasingly unpredictable rains and droughts of climate change. Increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizer must be used regardless, as its long-term use actually impoverishes the native productivity of soil. Farmers can either choose to add more fertilizer — at more cost — to ensure the growth of the crops, or they can accept reduced yields from nutrient-starved fields. And they have to do so with expensive capital equipment to apply the fertilizer. It’s a no-win situation for a farmer.
Pivot Bio’s solution of computationally-bred soil bacteria reawakens the natural ability to convert nitrogen from the air of the soil microbes’ around a staple crop’s roots. This effect dramatically increases crops’ ability to meet their daily nitrogen needs without destructive synthetic fertilizer. And, because Pivot’s solution is active deep in the soil in and around the plant’s roots, it can’t be washed away by heavy rains – or blown away by drought. Crops have access to the nitrogen they need every day, resulting in 10 – 15% higher yields per acre for farmers and a supply chain that’s better able to withstand the impact of an uncertain and rapidly changing climate.
As Pivot Bio sells out another growing season for its corn crop, we’re encouraged to see the company making even more progress by expanding to new geographies — Argentina and Canada — and new crops — U.S. wheat. In addition, the company is collectively addressing the major staple food crops — corn, wheat, and rice — grown by humans today. Pivot Bio was already on a remarkable trajectory, and with this new round of funding we’re excited to see it expand its footprint to millions of additional acres in the next growing season as demand increases.
Eliminating the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer may not seem like that big a deal, but this one small shift will have a dramatic impact for farmers, our food supply and our planet. In addition to the lack of predictability farmers have when using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, it also contributes to about 500 ocean dead zones around the globe, decomposes into nitrous oxide responsible for about 5 percent of global warming, and long-term impoverishes soil by preventing the natural ability of soil microbes to produce nitrogen that crops need.
Pivot Bio not only gives farmers peace of mind with more resilient crops and more predictable yields, it benefits our planet, too. That’s a massive challenge to tackle, and one the company was able to achieve by mixing biology, machine learning and computational modeling to produce a novel solution. This way of thinking and this fearlessness in tackling a massive challenge in our global agricultural system is exactly why DCVC was such an early and enthusiastic supporter of the company, from leading the Series Seed to doubling down in this successful Series C.
Congratulations to the whole Pivot Bio team – and the farmers benefiting today from their breakthrough solution!