Indian scientists are researching the use of seaweed-based biostimulants to increase crop productivity.
Dr Arup Ghosh of CSIR – CSMCR (Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute, Bhavnagar, Gujarat, India), has been working on the development of seaweed-based biostimulants that will help increase crop productivity in India by up to 37%. He is also one of the authors of a research article called Influence of Seaweed Saps on Germination, Growth and Yield of Hybrid Maize under Cauvery Command of Karnataka, India. Future Farming spoke with him at an international crop-science conference & exhibition just outside New Delhi recently.
Could you tell us about the work that has been done on seaweeds till today?
“It has been only 10 to 15 years since we started doing research on seaweeds. Developing technology for seaweed cultivation is very difficult, but with our work, we have now succeeded in developing 3 to 4 species of seaweed, like Brasileirao, Gracilaria edulis, Sargassum, and others. Sargassum seaweed is available in large quantities, and from it we are deriving biostimulants which increase crop productivity.”
For which crops can seaweeds be used as biostimulants?
“We are already using seaweeds on more than 20 crops. Trials have been conducted on rice, maize, soybean, seasam, green gram, sugarcane, potato, tomato, and other vegetables. These trials have shown good results, with an 11 to 37% increase in productivity. Farmers who use seaweeds use 25% less fertilisers.”
How did you conduct these trials?
“To be specific, we conducted 5 treatments with maize plants, where the plants were subjected to soil moisture stress once (V5) or thrice (V5,10,15) at their critical growth stages to study the effect of Kappaphycus alvarezii seaweed extract (KSWE) on drought alleviation as well as its effect on soil bacteria along with suitable controls.”
“KSWE in maize crop proved an effective biostimulant that enhanced crop yields by 13 to 37% over and above the recommended chemical fertiliser dosages (control) and in several cases their quality. Studies on soil microbiome indicated that the Steroidobacter, Anaerolinea, Bacillus, Paenibacillus, Ammoniphilus and Nitrospira were the predominant genera falling under the Phyla Proteobacteria, Chloroflexi, Firmicutes and Nitrospirae and they were significantly influenced due to the treatments at harvest of maize.”
“Kappaphycus alvarezii seaweed is cultivated from several macroalgae like Gracilaria, Kappaphycus at the plant in Bhavnagar in Gujarat state. The institute has a US patent for the process to obtain liquid seaweed fertilisers (LSF) from red seaweed.”
“In maize crop under controlled conditions, high throughput sequencing through Illumina platform was used for sequence analysis of V3 region of 16S rRNA gene amplified from soil metagenome obtained from the soil underneath the crop canopy in the root zone.”
“New trials are going on at 43 agricultural universities and at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institute, an autonomous body responsible for coordinating agricultural education and research in India. For our research, we have also received patent in the US, the EU and India.”
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Dr Arup Ghosh: "Sargassum seaweed is available in large quantities, and from it we are deriving biostimulants which increase crop productivity." - Photo: Jagdish Kumar
Could you explain the process?
“10 disinfected maize seeds were soaked in with varied concentrations of Kappaphycus alvarezii (K sap) and Gracilaria edulis (G sap) viz.,0, 2.5%, 5%,10%,15% and 20% for 12 hours and the process was followed for 3 days. After 3 days, the application of seaweed extract at different concentrations enhanced shoot length, root length and seedling vigour index. Higher shoot length, root length and vigour index was noticed when seeds were soaked in 15% G or 15% K sap. But, when the concentration is reduced to 2.5% or increased to 20%, significant reduction in the germination was noticed.”
“The treatments having enriched microbial abundance due to KSWE application under severe stress also recorded significantly higher cob yields suggesting their contribution in stress amelioration through plant growth promotion and better soil nutrient cycling.”
“Members of some taxa associated in plant growth promotion and nutrient cycling (Nitrosomonas, Nitrosvibrio, Rubrobacter, Flavobacterium) were found significantly enriched by the application of KSWE thrice under severe drought.”
In how many agro climatic conditions have seaweeds been tested?
“We have conducted over 170 agronomic and large scale demonstration trials in varied agro-ecological zones across 20 states in India.”
Is India producing enough seaweeds to meet its demand?
“Currently, we are producing only 5% to 8% of the amount of seaweeds needed, the rest is imported. The current demand calls for 450,000 tons of solid biostimulants and a few million litres of liquid biostimulants. India is just starting to witness the usage of seaweeds in crop protection.”
Dr Arup Gosh:
Farmers can earn an additional INR 10,000 ($ 140) to INR 15,000 ($ 210) per month with growing seaweeds
“There are some seaweeds which do not grow in India, we work with those seaweeds which are grown in our more than 4,650 miles of coastline. On these coastlines there are many areas where seaweed cultivation can be done. We are trying to develop technology for growing seaweeds in those areas, so the potential is huge.”
How much does India spend on importing seaweeds?
“It is very difficult to comment on this, but we are spending millions of dollars importing seaweeds. That money can be saved if we start producing seaweeds on our vast coastlines.”
How do you see the future of seaweeds in India?
“The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), an Indian government policy think tank, was established with the aim of achieving sustainable development goals with the involvement of state governments. We‘ve had several meetings with NITI Aayog. They have also set up a committee to explore how seaweeds are grown. However, seaweed cultivation is in a nascent stage and India has huge potential. We‘re aiming to promote seaweed cultivation and to achieve this, we are partnering with many private entities that are using our technology.”
“One of our licensees, AquAgri Processing Private Limited, has built a plant for the production of SAP biostimulant derived from seaweed. The company based in Maharashtra now has a turnover of several million dollars.”
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In the open sea, seaweeds do not require any fresh water, nor fertiliser, pesticides, or energy. - Photo: EPA
How can seaweed cultivation increase farmers’ income?
“Farmers can earn an additional INR 10,000 ($ 140) to INR 15,000 ($ 210) per month with growing seaweeds. Applying seaweeds will also help increase farmers’ production, thereby increasing their income. It is a 3-pronged strategy: utilise the sea shore, increase crop productivity and increase income of farmers.”
Which are the companies you have partnered with, could you name a few?
“AquAgri Processing Private Limited, Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO), Vikas Crop Care are some of the names we are already working with to increase farm productivity. Our idea is to provide affordable technology and let farmers benefit from seaweeds.”
How do you manage to sustain your operation, as R&D requires a lot of funds?
“Our institution is an autonomous funding institute mandated to promote new technology for increasing farmers’ income. We don’t give any exclusive rights to corporations. However, any Indian company can partner with us to take our technology to the end users. Profit is not our motive; companies that use our technology pay cost price. This is what a government-funded institute is to do.”
How can a private player approach your organisation?
“Companies through their CSR activities should come forward and invest in the research of seaweed cultivation. We also do collaborative research and call all interested private players to come and join us. That is what we have been doing for the last few decades. CSMCRI has pioneered in developing technologies for growing seaweeds in the sea.”
You also said that seaweed cultivation benefits the environment, can you explain how?
“In the open sea, seaweeds do not require any fresh water, nor fertiliser, pesticides, or energy. It is a very green technology form which we have developed and derived many value-added products of which biostimulants is just one. We have demonstrated that in a 3 x 3 meter raft, we can produce 200kg wet, fresh biomass, more than you could ever get out of any crop grown on land.”