Soy in 1000 gardens: citizen science project to map soil microbes in Flanders

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Good science takes many hands. In the case of a new citizen science project by VIB, UGent, ILVO, KU Leuven, the hands they were after were green-thumbed individuals in Flanders. The institutes have recruited gardeners to plant soybeans, in the hope of identifying microbial species in soils across Flanders that promote the growth of the vital crop. The ultimate aim is to increase sustainable soy production in the region.

By Amy LeBlanc

The rich fertile soil of Flanders has made it an agriculture hub for thousands of years, with the region famous for potatoes, asparagus and of course the eponymous Brussels sprout. Now, a coalition of local institutes are looking to add another crop to the mix: soybeans.

There’s just one hitch: soy plants establish symbiotic relationships with microbes, such as mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria like rhizobia. Since soy isn’t currently cultivated in Flanders, we simply don’t know which soils contain the best microbial cocktails to support the crops’ growth.

To overcome this issue, research institutes VIB, UGent, ILVO and KU Leuven have banded together and turned to the everyday gardeners of Flanders with a citizen project. The mission is simple: plant soybeans in 100 gardens across Flanders and find out where the soy grows best! Researchers can then sample that soil to find out what the magic microbials were that helped the plants flourish.

Why soy?

Flanders has long had a focus on green biotech, with a strong commitment to sustainability and eco-friendliness. Several R&D hubs in the region, such as the biotech valley in Ghent, support research into agbiotech, life sciences and the biobased economy. With a surface area of only 13,625 km2, Flanders is home to a whopping 23,361 agricultural businesses and generates €38.4 billion in annual agricultural exports (Flanders Investment and Trade).

Growing soy in Flanders is still quite a challenge, [but] local production would offer many benefits for the environment, the climate, our economy, and our soil. – Sofie Goormachtig, VIB – UGent

One of humanity’s key crops is however conspicuously missing from Flanders’ fields. A humble legume native to East Asia, soybeans are one of the most important sources of vegetable protein in the world. Soy is a vital food crop used in meat substitutes like tofu and soy milk, but also of major importance for soy vegetable oil production and the single most important protein source for animal feed.

A library of soil microbes

Currently, most of the world’s soy is grown in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, China, and India. Belgian companies and livestock farmers have to import all of their soy from international suppliers, a process which is neither economical nor particularly sustainable. Local cultivation should be possible: soybeans grow successfully in climates with warm summers around 20 to 30°C and can grow in a wide range of soils, where the plants’ ability to fix nitrogen allows farmers to reduce the use of fertilizer and increase the yields of other crops grown in rotation with the beans.

Soy is a subtropical plant that is not adapted to our environment. If we want soy to feel at home here, we also have to find the right microbial partners in our soil. – Sofie Goormachtig, VIB – UGent

Prof. Sofie Goormachtig is a VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology researcher who studies the interactions between plant roots and soil microbes. Together with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, she hopes that the ‘Soy in 1000 Gardens’ project will lead to the identification of Flemish soil bacteria that can help us to grow soy locally.

“Growing soy in Flanders is still quite a challenge,” Goormachtig says. “Local production would offer many benefits for the environment, the climate, our economy, and our soil. Soy is a subtropical plant that is not adapted to our environment. If we want soy to feel at home here, we also have to find the right microbial partners in our soil.”

All set for a green summer

The ‘Soy in 1000 Gardens’ project has been successful in attracting volunteers to take park in the research as citizen scientists. Even the Flemish Minister of Agriculture, Innovation, and Food, Minister Hilde Crevits, has signed up to monitor soybean seeds in her hometown of Torhout. Minister Crevits has already prepared a piece of land, she says:

“Citizen science narrows the gap between science and society: citizens carry out their own research and provide a wealth of unique data for the researchers. Projects like this stimulate support for science, technology, and innovation. Moreover, I am simply very curious whether the bacterial life in the soil here in Torhout already has natural strengths to help soy to grow. The results of this project should help to facilitate the local cultivation of this protein-rich crop. In addition, local soy cultivation has a low need for nitrogen fertilization and is good for soil quality. Reason enough to roll up your sleeves!”

Read this BioVox article to learn about Aphea.Bio, a Belgian company mining the microbiome for sustainable agriculture solutions.

Registrations for this particular project closed at the start of March, but for garden enthusiast there are plenty of other important citizen science projects needing still looking for volunteers. On the Mijn Tuinlab website, projects range from counting birds and spiders to helping researchers understand the biodiversity of gardens across Flanders. A good cause to roll up your sleeves, indeed!