Why Natural Fertilizers Can Help Improve Soil Health
We got the bad news this month that human civilization as we know it will end by 2050, so we might as well get our kicks before the whole thing goes up in flames, right? The report out of Australia – where, let’s face it, civilization ended after the last Crocodile Dundee movie – is just the latest in a series of doomsday scenarios coming from scientists around the world. However, unlike Elon Musk, we’re not ready to pack our bags for Mars just yet. Every day we learn about amazing technologies, from geothermal energy and floating solar farms to lab-grown meat and indoor vertical farms, that promise to put us on a path of more sustainable energy and food systems. In agriculture, probably the rai·son d’ê·tre of our time is healthy soil. That’s why we’re seeing so much activity in developing natural fertilizers and other so-called biological inputs to improve soil health.
In our recent article on plant sciences, we talked about how many agtech companies are focused on technologies to increase crop yields in order to feed ourselves and the 2.5 billion more people projected to join us at the dinner table by 2050. We also noted that one of the big problems is the fact that the soil we need to grow those crops is headed toward its own kind of extinction, as experts predict that we have less than 60 growing seasons left before most of it becomes as fertile as the Sahara Desert. Chemical fertilizers and other synthetics like the weed-killer glyphosate are seen as public enemy No. 1 to soil (and human) health. That’s led to millions of dollars of investment into an area known as regenerative agriculture.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture embodies a set of farming principles aimed to improve soil health – and, by extension, crop yield – by creating a sort of closed-loop system where a farm operates more like a self-sustaining ecosystem. The idea is to bring soil back to life by minimizing tillage, cutting out synthetic fertilizers, increasing crop diversity, integrating livestock into the process, and other practices that will boost organic matter. In turn, that improves the soil’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, among other benefits, like better water holding capacity. There’s even a new regenerative organic agriculture certification, still in the pilot stage, which spells out in detail many of the principles involved:
You’ll notice that one entire pillar of the certification is focused on soil health. You probably think that this and related efforts are mainly driven by a bunch of 21st century hippies who shop at Whole Foods and drive Teslas, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But many of the brands behind regenerative agriculture are very successful companies like Patagonia. Earlier this year, global food company General Mills (GIS) announced it would convert one million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture by 2030. And just this month, one of the world’s most valuable agtech startups, Indigo Agriculture, initiated a program to incentivize farmers to convert their farms to regenerative agriculture.
Investing in Soil Health and Regenerative Agriculture
Of course, another reason to help save the planet is that there is profit to be made. Organic foods on average are 47% more expensive than conventional foods, according to a study by Consumer Reports. The whole business model behind a firm called Farmland LP involves investing in converting conventional farmland to regenerative organic farming. In one case, the firm realized gross margins of 40 to 50% on wine grapes grown through regenerative practices versus conventionally grown commodity crops, Forbes reported. Farmland LP reportedly has a total of $160 million assets under management, including 15,000 acres of farmland. A USDA-backed study of the business model found a $21.4 million, or 44.2% gain, on the purchase value from converting the land to regenerative organic agriculture.
Soil health was recently at the heart of a new contest of sorts by FoodShot Global, a non-profit consortium of venture funds, banks, corporations, universities, and foundations to invest in startups and projects that use technology to solve global food problems. The $3 million equity investment in the Soil 3.0 challenge went to Trace Genomics. We previously profiled the San Francisco-based startup, which uses artificial intelligence and DNA sequencing to assess soil health by analyzing the soil microbiome, which is made up of microscopic bacteria and other wee organisms that not only help crops grow but to resist disease.
Natural Fertilizers and the Microbiome
Natural fertilizers that focus on the soil microbiome appear to be one of the fastest growing segments in agtech. Indigo Agriculture itself markets microbe-coated seed, while others like Pivot Bio are tweaking certain microbes and turning them into nitrogen-producing machines to provide the much-needed nutrient without chemicals. Another previously profiled company, AgBiome, genetically screens millions of microbes to find the ones best suited for combating pests. Let’s take a look at a couple of more startups in this category.
Founded in 2017, Aphea.Bio is a Belgian startup that has raised about $10 million in funding. The company is developing microbe-based products for both fertilizers and pesticides. Details are scant on the company’s actual technology, but if it follows the path of its competitors, then it’s likely using AI to help speed up the process for identifying the best bacterial genetics for the job. Aphea.Bio says it will focus on staple crops such as wheat, barley, and maize, because “they offer the most valuable European and global market opportunities.” Interestingly, the startup has recently partnered with a not-very-natural fertilizer company called EuroChem.
Founded in 2013, Columbus, Ohio-based 3Bar Biologics has raised about $2.2 million in funding. One of the challenges of working with microbes is that they’re living organisms, so by the time they’re applied to crops, many of them have died somewhere along the supply chain. 3Bar Biologics has solved that problem of mass microbial genocide through its LiveMicrobe technology, which basically keeps the bacteria inert until the farmer is ready to apply the product, with a simple push of a button that starts the fermentation process.
The company’s first product, Bio-Yield Biostimulant, targets corn, with results showing an increase of seven bushels per acre.
Natural Fertilizers from Waste
If you’ve ever been to an all-you-can-eat Golden Corral buffet and witnessed the aftermath of that fried food orgy, then you know we waste a lot of food. But, as they say, one man’s garbage is another man’s fertilizer. We’ve come across quite a few startups turning food waste into fertilizer, such as California Safe Soil and WISErg Corporation. Here are a couple of startups doing it a little bit differently.
Founded way back in 2005, Anuvia Plant Nutrients is a Florida startup that has raised $23 million. The company has developed a technology that it says can take any organic matter – from human waste to food waste – and turn it into a more eco-friendly granulated fertilizer. For those of you with advanced degrees in chemistry, this might make sense: “The Organic MaTRX is made from combining electrostatically charged (positive and negative) organic particles that provide docking sites for desired nutrients.” Maybe this chart will help:
Last year, the company entered into an agreement with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hot producer, to turn 100,000 wet tons of hog waste per year into 65,000 tons of fertilizer product, AgFunder News reported.
Update 02/23/2021: Anuvia has raised $103 million in funding to scale up production and R&D. This brings the company’s total funding to $242 million to date.
If pig waste isn’t to your taste, how about turning wastewater into fertilizer? Also founded in 2005, Vancouver-based Ostara has amassed $56.7 million, including an $11 million round in the beginning of this year. It produces a fertilizer called Crystal Green that is made from phosphorus and nitrogen recovered from industrial, agricultural, and municipal water treatment facilities. It claims that the fertilizer slowly releases nutrients as the plant needs it, dissolving in response to the release of citric acid. Crystal Green, however, doesn’t dissolve in water, so there’s no chemical release if the fertilizer is washed away.
DIY Natural Fertilizers from Thin Air
As you might have figured out by now, nitrogen is one of the key nutrients that plants need to grow. It’s also a big problem in synthetic fertilizers because more of it is applied than the plant can ever use. That causes a host of problems, especially when it washes out of the soil, polluting water sources and creating dead zones in the ocean. It can also evaporate into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. U.S. farmers reportedly apply more than 11 million tons of nitrogen fertilizers every year, mostly in the form of ammonium nitrate.
Norwegian startup N2 Applied, with a reported $8 million in funding, has re-developed an old technology that uses only manure, air, and renewable energy to create a nitrogen fertilizer. The company has developed a plasma reactor that it sells directly to farmers to create their own fertilizer. The concept is based on the work of a Norwegian scientist named Kristian Olaf Birkeland who pioneered the technology for grabbing nitrogen oxide out of thin air by means of an electric arc. The electric arc could “burn” the air and make NO gas, which could be further oxidized to nitrogen dioxide. The N2 plasma reactor fixes nitrogen from the air by a slightly different hocus pocus process to form ammonium nitrate.
The contraption can be powered by renewable energy, and because it recycles livestock manure, that lowers ammonia emissions from what would be unused waste. Farmers can also cut out the middleman by producing their own natural fertilizer that is less polluting.
Regenerative agriculture has been touted as a way to reverse climate change because by improving soil, we can potentially sequester billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. A new soil-based economy seems to be taking root around that central concept. You might remember something that happened a few years ago called the Paris Climate Accord where nearly every country on the planet pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Another 36 of the 197 countries that signed the Paris agreement also committed to increasing the levels of carbon stored in soils by investing in regenerative agriculture and land-use practices. That will further bolster competition to improve soil health through natural fertilizers and other eco-friendly inputs. Soil is the new oil.
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