Putting a Spotlight on Plant Nutrition Solutions

IFA Co-Organizes the 2018 Ag Innovation Showcase with the Larta Institute and the Danforth Plant Science Center

IFA was delighted to be a driving force behind the 2018 Ag Innovation Showcase held in St Louis, Missouri from September 10-12. The preeminent ag tech conference brings together investors, established companies in the agrifood value chain and start-ups annually.

This year’s event, which was sponsored by IFA alongside IFA members Compass Minerals, Wesfarmers/CSBP, ICL, Kingenta, Koch Agronomic Services, Mosaic, Nutrien, OCP, Valagro and Yara, featured a strong emphasis on precise plant nutrition, with four fertilizer-focused sessions and a range of specially selected ag tech startups showcasing innovative plant nutrition solutions.

The global plant nutrient industry was very well represented with speakers from Nutrien, Yara, IFFCO, Kingenta, OCP, CSBP, Koch, Mosaic, TFI, IPNI. In total, more than 60 IFA members attended from some 25 organizations in over 10 different countries.

Throughout the conference, innovative plant nutrition was at the forefront of discussion. In his opening keynote talk, Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo’s vice chairman and chief scientific officer of Global Research and Development, revealed that the firm was partnering with companies to find technology to better use fertilizers and help reduce nutrient losses.

During a packed keynote conversation, Mark Thompson, Nutrien’s VP of Business Development Mark Thompson and Stefan Fürnsinn, Senior VP of Digital Farming at Yara International, discussed how to effectively implement precise plant nutrition with IFA DG Charlotte Hebebrand.

The wide-reaching discussion touched on both companies’ focus on precision agriculture and digital farming solutions, recent digital platform acquisitions (Adapt-N by Yara and Agrible by Nutrien), partnerships, and new products such as biologicals. While bullish on digital ag solutions, also for assisting with knowledge transfer to farmers in remote developing regions, Stefan Fürnsinn cautioned that digital farming still needed further optimization. He described an exciting and still maturing technological ecosystem in which Yara has found its place.

Mark Thompson, meanwhile, felt that there was still a lot of room for further tech adoption and early stage companies’ agricultural solutions. He highlighted the role of Nutrien’s integrated digital platform, which is incorporating nutrient and yield mapping alongside sustainability tracking, to create real-time decision-making tools that make agronomy a seamless experience for growers.

Both speakers emphasized the importance of partnerships, with Nutrien holding two formal agreements with venture capital firms that have helped develop fruitful relationships with their portfolio companies, and Yara making active partnerships throughout the food chain.

In an exciting group panel session Rakesh Kapur, IFA Chairman and IFFCO Joint MD & CFO, Zhai Jidong, EVP of Kingenta, and Marouane Ameziane, EVP of Strategy & Corporate Development explored new opportunities for sustainable agricultural productivity growth in India, China and Africa with AndMore Associates’ Bob Morris.

Rakesh Kapur highlighted growing innovation in India, with new products such as liquid fertilizers seeing significant market demand from farmers keen to increase their nutrient use efficiency and the use of biometrics to direct benefits transfers to farmers. He also spoke of challenges such as the Indian subsidy regime which does not foster balanced plant nutrition and impediments to the free movement of fertilizers from ports to India’s interior.

Zhai Jidong gave an overview of agricultural development and regulation in China and the numerous special nutrient solutions created by Kingenta including a variety of polymer coated controlled fertilizers, waters soluble fertilizers and biostimulants, as well as the company’s efforts to train farmers to encourage more efficient plant nutrition.

Marouane Ameziane emphasized Africa’s considerable potential for agricultural growth, with very little fertilizer use and 60% of arable land unused. He felt the challenge of the continent’s diverse needs offered the chance to create customized regional plant nutrition solutions that attract new users, as OCP is doing in Ethiopia. He also highlighted the importance of digital agriculture for expanding plant nutrient solutions, citing four digital factories, a coding school and a joint venture with IBM that OCP has set up.

IFA’s Agricultural Service Senior Director, Patrick Heffer, and Nathan Field, NCGA Director of Biotechnology and Crop Inputs, hosted a special roundtable discussing soil and plant health diagnostics, fertilizer recommendation tools and metrics for optimum nutrient management with TFI, IPNI, Waypoint, Decipher, Servi-Tech, John Deere, Teralytic and LeafSpec. The session explored the link between soil and plant health indicators and fertilizer use efficiency, as well as innovations on the horizon for soil and plant diagnostics and fertilizer recommendation tools.

Sally Flis, TFI’s Director of Agronomy, opened proceedings with an overview of 4R Nutrient Stewardship, before the session explored various aspects of soil health. Waypoint’s Scott McKee explained how faster soil testing turnaround times are allowing growers to act on data before weather interrupts field activities. Frank D’Emden, Technical Product manager at Wesfarmer owned ag platform Decipher, told how Australian farmers are performing geophysical soil mapping and completely renovating their soils as a result. He also foresaw artificial neural networks helping to mine data and create more complex soil models in the future.

With Nathan Fields observing that the growing public interest in how crops are grown increased the need to adopt new technology to provide that information, the session also featured some innovative new diagnostic tools including Teralytic’s autonomous soil sensor, designed to be left in for a season and constantly monitor soil and crop conditions across 26 data points and Purdue University spinoff LeafSpec’s handheld hyperspectral imager that can measure leaf moisture, chlorophyll and nitrogen content in 3 seconds.

On day three, Ryan Bond from Koch Industries, Mosaic’s Kyle Freeman and Mark Goeddertz from Bayer explored the future of precise plant nutrient solutions with Bob Morris. Kyle Freeman discussed how Mosaic is always looking to create value for farmers through new solutions, highlighting opportunities in micronutrients. Ryan Bond noted that as combinations of different microbes going into potential solutions can add complexity they need to be properly understood and explained to growers. Mark Goeddertz, meanwhile, pointed out that while many biologicals being developed are currently flying under the radar because they are small or early stage, producers should be prepared for upcoming regulatory aspects when developing them.

Precise plant nutrition was also heavily featured among the specially selected showcase companies, including nitrogen fixing microbes for non-legume crops from Pivot Bio Pivot Bio, a solution to turn farm wastewater into fertilizers from Livestock Water Recycling, a new type of product to slow down the release of phosphatic fertilizer from Phospholutions, efficient nanofertilizers from Teri and the world’s first wireless NPK field-based sensor from Teralytics.

IFA’s involvement in the showcase and the development of plant nutrition were also highlighted in a feature in Successful Farming that can be read here.

Key Take Aways

  • The focus on plant nutrition allowed IFA members to present their own innovative products and services, helping to dispel the myth that the fertilizer sector does not focus sufficiently on innovation.
  • The growing emphasis on agricultural solutions in the ag tech space is the result of serious investor interest in sustainable food systems. It will be useful for IFA to explore how best to become apprised of plant nutrition related ag tech offerings and evaluate the merits of their projects (and provide feedback to them), since the investor community does not possess critical plant nutrition knowledge.
  • The conference demonstrated the interest of food value chain players (Pepsi, Cargill) in sustainable plant nutrition and traceability options, and that other input providers (i.e. Corteva developing inhibitors) are also pursuing plant nutrition solutions.