Spicing up the soil

Micro-organisms combat hunger and malnutrition

Photography: Shutterstock

Combatting world hunger requires major breakthroughs and new systems based on different ways of cultivating and processing food. This is the only way we can continue to change the living conditions in developing countries. But such a major shift could perhaps begin with something very small, even microscopic.


Popular traditional drinks made from fermented grains could contribute greatly to a healthy food supply in African countries.


The project would result in a nutritious and healthy drink, more fertile soil and higher incomes for farmers and producers. It would also strengthen the position of women in African communities.

Professor Gerlinde De Deyn is research leader of a project entitled ‘Laying a basis for Sorghum’. She is convinced that micro-organisms can make a huge difference to human well-being. “The research we would like to do focuses on organisms living on the roots of certain plants. These micro-organisms play an important role in the fermentation process used to make certain types of grain-based drinks in several African countries. We think that we could stimulate and optimise these organisms so that they eventually help produce a drink with a much higher nutritional value, more vitamins, more easily absorbed proteins and a considerably longer shelf life. This would be a great way to use nature’s own energy and biodiversity to combat hunger and improve people’s health.”

‘We can use nature’s own energy and biodiversity to improve people’s health’

“We have the ambition to go beyond just developing a drink with the best nutritional profile, by joining forces with the local population to see how the product can be marketed successfully and using the waste to improve soil quality. The micro-organisms can make a three-way contribution: a nutritious product, higher incomes for farmers and producers and a more fertile soil.”


5 years


University of Zambia (Zambia)



Funds needed


A field full of sorghum. Photo: Shutterstock

This study is a typical example of the strengths which have made Wageningen University & Research (WUR) so renowned: combining several scientific disciplines to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. “Our project combines food microbiology, food innovation, soil sciences, social sciences, economics and sociology,” explains De Deyn. “We have the top players in all those disciplines here in Wageningen. I know of no other university that is capable of making such wide-ranging combinations. And in the preparatory phase, you can already see that we are used to looking beyond the borders of our own knowledge areas or departments. There is such a great spirit here; everyone is willing to think and participate.”


The planned research will be conducted in Zambia, where scientists can expand on scientific and social relations created in previous projects; moreover, one of the team members is a visiting professor there. These existing structures offer a good basis for getting to work right away on location. “We want to further strengthen this basis by training three PhD candidates in the project – young locals who can be of continued value to their community after the project has ended,” De Deyn says.

Locals selling drinks made from fermented grain at the market. Photo: Sijmen Schoustra

“What’s more, our project could especially help strengthen the position of women in the relevant communities. It is the women who work the land and use the harvest to make products such as the drink this project is focusing on. Their position will become stronger in a range of ways as the final product increases in value. It is interesting to see how fundamental research and entrepreneurship meet each other in this case – both in terms of the relationship with our potential financers, and in the boost to the economic value of the drink. The fact that we will involve the entire value chain and create a new cycle of food production convinces me that this is a unique opportunity. At any rate, I have never come closer to being able to do something about hunger directly at the source.”




Professor Soil Ecology, Wageningen University & Research


Biodiversity, Microbiology, Plant-parasitic nematodes, Soil biology, Terrestrial ecology, Mycorrhizae, Above and underground interactions, Carbon sequestration, Soil ecology, Restoration of grasslands, Nematodes

Photo: Gea Hogeveen





“We did something ground-breaking.”


The projects and studies that Wageningen University & Research wants to get started with your help.