Plant Nutrition 2.0: The Fertilizer Industry Embraces AgTech
In theory there’s a very straightforward way to sustainably feed the world’s growing population while protecting the planet.
By adopting the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship – applying the Right nutrient source, at the Right rate, at the Right time, in the Right place –farmers can increase crop yields on existing land, reduce nutrients losses to the environment and improved their income and living standards while also using less fertilizer
The 4Rs can help preserve wild ecosystems and reduce deforestation, increase carbon capture through soil organic matter and reduce the estimated 1.5% of global greenhouse gasses that are currently produced by fertilizer application.
Of course, real life isn’t so simple. Crop nutrition is a complicated subject with many variables including soil health and the weather. It’s very difficult for farmers to know exactly what fertilizers to apply, when and in what amount.
Which is why a growing number of fertilizers producers and startups are turning to technology. Digital tools that improve fertilizer decision-making and application, climate-smart fertilizers with enhanced efficiency, as well as new products to improve soil and plant health, can all help farmers increase their yields and improve their nutrient use efficiency.
Held during IFA’s Annual Conference in June, the inaugural Plant Nutrition Startup Showcase highlighted the wide range of agricultural technology (AgTech) startups that are choosing to work in the space and the numerous possibilities for innovative products.
3Bar Biologices won IFA's first ever Plant Nutrition Starup Showcase in June this year
With so much potential it’s not just startups that are embracing innovations. An increasing number of IFA members are beginning to invest into biologicals and digital tools, as well as startups themselves, as they look to become full-service plant nutrition service providers. Some recent examples include:
In April 2018, Nutrien launched a digital ag platform to help farmers better manage the timing of planting, fertilizer application and harvesting using weather and soil data. Since then the company has made seven additional major acquisitions and partnerships including several biologicals and digital AgTech firms.
In November 2017, Yara acquired the maker of Adapt-N, a computer modelling system that predicts precise crop application rates using weather data, field conditions and best soil management practices, to reduce nitrogen application rates and losses while increasing yields. And this year, Yara launched Yaralrix, a precision farming tool that allows farmers to measure crop nitrogen requirements with portable testers that connect to smartphones to make recommendations, as well as a partnership with IBM.
Also in 2017, Wesfarmers launched digital precision ag platform Decipher, the first commercial farming service to use the Google Earth Engine to combine satellite images, geospatial data and processing power to analyse crops and provide variate rate fertilizer prescriptions.
In June 2018, OCP acquired a 20% stake in Fertinagro Biotech, which manufactures and supplies a wide range of plant nutrition solutions, to bolster their know-how in product customization and innovation. The producer has also founded the agriculture focused Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, opened in 2017 in Morocco, which provides university scholarships for African agricultural and environment engineering students. In June this year it launched a startup acceleration program for Agtech, Biotech, Nanotech and MiningTech entrepreneurs.
In 2012, ICL launched ICL Innovation to accelerate the development of sustainable new products which announced a collaboration agreement with PlantArcBio earlier this year for the development of innovative crop productivity enhancers for agriculture. In May 2018, ICL announced an investment and partnership with ag analytics firm CropX as part of its strategic decision to invest in and develop precision ag solutions.
Koch Agronomic Services has been focusing on biologicals with the acquisition of the biological research and development business of Mendel Biotechnology in 2014 and a minority of stake in microbial science company Pathway BioLogic in 2016.
These recent investments help to highlight the potential of technology to significantly improve plant nutrition.
In addition to digital tools to optimize fertilizer recommendations and ensure more precise and targeted fertilizer application, there are also considerable opportunities for new fertilizer products and techniques that better synchronize nutrient release with plants’ needs, as well as new materials to help nutrient delivery, such as nanoparticles and graphene.
Other areas with potential for innovation include products that can improve plant resilience to flooding and droughts, organo-mineral offerings that combine organic and mineral fertilizers, and products mixing mineral fertilizers with biologicals that can potentially further improve plant yield and quality, as well as soil health.
With the growth of pressurised irrigation systems which improve yields and resilience to dry spells, developing new water-soluble and liquid fertilizers to apply water and fertilizers simultaneously also offers a great opportunity for improving the efficiency of both inputs.
Today, the fertilizer industry, alongside a range of AgTech startups, are launching and supporting a wide range of high-tech plant nutrient solutions, while growing interest is helping to create a vibrant ecosystem of plant nutrition innovations.
With such technologies becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, these tools should soon be able to help farmers throughout the world efficiently manage fertilizers to increase yields, reduce losses and sustainably producing food in a variety of changing climates.