The Good Fungus: An Unlikely Helper for Farmers Around the World

American scientists discovered a powerful fungus that helps plants survive extreme weather

In the late 1990s, geneticist Regina Redman and microbiologist Russell Rodriguez went to Yellowstone National Park to research how life can survive in extreme environments. The park is on a volcanic hotspot, leading to geysers like Old Faithful and geothermal soils that can get as hot as 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet even in these intense temperatures, plants still grow and thrive, puzzling biologists.

After a year of research, Redman and Rodriguez discovered a fungus living in cooperation, or symbiosis, with the plants. Rather than harming the plants, the fungal infection actually aided their growth in high temperatures. Plants with the fungus also required less water and nutrients to grow than those without. Redman and Rodriguez realized that this kind of fungus could help farmers around the world grow food in extreme conditions.

In 2008, Redman founded a company, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (AST), to harness the power of special fungi from around the world. Rodriguez joined, and by 2013, they had developed BioEnsure, a liquid spray to coat seeds in helpful fungi that would inoculate the resulting plants from drought and heat waves.

Based out of Seattle, Washington, AST began testing with commercial partners in the United States in 2014. After several years of testing — the standard in the United States — they began selling BioEnsure in 2017.

With their sales in the Americas set to quadruple in 2018, they’re looking at the bigger picture.

“Our mission has always been to get out there and help people,” says Zachery Gray, Vice President of Business Development at AST. “We didn’t want big companies to buy [our product] up and not give it to the people who need it at a fair price. We knew we had to get this to people who will benefit the most.”

We want to see this technology on as many seeds as possible.

Redman and Rodriguez set their sights on expanding into a country where farmers desperately need help adapting to droughts: India. Bringing Bioensure into India was a risky idea. The company needed to raise capital, as well as navigate an extremely complex bureaucracy to gain government approval. Even after all that, actually getting the seed treatment to farmers would be a challenge.

“We normally work with distributors who go out and sell to consumers in the developed world,” Gray explains. “But in rural India, that system is not in place. They don’t have the infrastructure.”

Luckily, AST found help. Redman, Rodriguez, and Gray raised just under $6 million from investors, and Securing Water For Food (SWFF) — an water-agricultural grant and acceleration program — stepped in with more capital. With that money, AST found a consultant to help navigate the regulatory nightmare and get their treatment approved. And that capital funded research, helping Redman, Rodriguez, and the other scientists in their lab to develop low-cost seed treaters. With these machines, BioEnsure could be applied to seeds locally, rather than applied to seeds in America and shipped to India. But, they still need people to operate the seed treaters.

SWFF, having worked with women farmers in low-income areas before, helped AST launch an empowerment program that will teach women in farming villages how to operate the seed treaters and start their own businesses as agricultural distributors. AST will sell BioEnsure directly to these women, who will treat the seeds with BioEnsure and sell them in their communities. This approach both provides good-paying work for entrepreneurial women and expands the use of BioEnsure to hard-to-reach smaller farms.

Already, farmers have noticed a difference. “Those who grow mung beans are seeing a 55 percent increase in their crop, and farmers growing pearl millet are seeing a 30 percent increase,” essentially equal, Gray says, to “an extra full years’ income.”

And AST isn’t stopping there. For Redman, Rodriguez, and Gray, this isn’t just a business; it’s a humanitarian effort. “We want to see this technology on as many seeds as possible,” says Gray. “The world needs to produce more food.”