Achieving sustainable food production for a growing world population will be one of the greatest challenges of the coming century. A fundamental part of this will be reducing our dependence on synthetic, fossil-based fertilisers and pesticides.
Although heavy industry dominates conversations on sustainability, agriculture is another leading cause of global greenhouse emissions, habitat loss, and species extinction.
Much of this can be traced to synthetic agrichemicals. In the 20th century, these chemical advances boosted agricultural productivity to levels unprecedented in human history. However, although they boost yields and lower costs in the short term, they come with permanent costs – disrupting the soil microbiome, killing pollinating species, and polluting waterways with excess nutrients. On top of this, synthetic fertilisers are also carbon-intensive to manufacture.
Many believe that reducing agricultural synthetics would augur a future of low-volume, low-quality yields. Yet with the range of biological farming inputs on the market today, organic farming in the 21st century need not be a throwback to pre-industrial food production. Innovative alternatives to fossil-fuel based agrochemicals are growing and some could underpin a shift to viable organic farming systems.
Microbes for healthier seeds
Apart from sunlight and water, our food system depends on soil health. Many factors influence how suitable a soil is for cropping. The most obvious are the amounts of plant nutrients it contains.
Today, low soil nutrient levels are normally fixed by adding synthetically manufactured elements like potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The tendency is to load farmland with more of these synthetic substances than can be absorbed by crops. The surplus then leaches into the environment, where it can destroy aquatic wildlife and contaminate drinking water.
However, there are proven ways of improving soil fertility without adding unnecessary inputs. One approach is to make plants more efficient at absorbing nutrients already present in the soil. Boston-based Indigo Ag’s biotrinsic range takes this route. These biological seed treatments are segmented into crop type, covering wheat, soybeans, corn, cover crops, and cotton. Their product for wheat, for example, enhances the crop’s metabolism by increasing root water absorbency and root growth in both optimal and water-stressed conditions.
Indigo Ag’s range draws on a collection of over 30, 000 naturally occurring microbes found in the tissues of certain plants that happen to thrive under stressful environmental conditions. Indigo uses machine learning to identify which microbial combinations will work in specific applications. In 2018, it received a $250 million Series E that brought its total raised to $650 million.
Playing with soil chemistry
While Indigo Ag’s biotrinsic range targets the plant, there is another route to sustaining high yields without synthetics. It consists of altering soil chemistry. Soil particles with certain properties make any nutrients present inside more accessible to plant roots. Amnicore, a Dutch company, offers a soil amendment that does this using a compound called humic acid – the active component inside compost.
Plants absorb many mineral nutrients like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and zinc only when present in a positively-charged form. Positively charged ions are known as ‘cations’. Humic acid increases the negative charge of soil particles, allowing them to cling onto cations and prevent them from seeping underground away from root-reach.
Apart from particle charge, another factor determines how readily the soil supplies nutrients to plants: the amount and diversity of micro-organisms living inside it. Soils are complex habitats whose microbial ecosystems can tip the balance between high and low yields – between the need for farmers to apply huge amounts of expensive, synthetic feed and allowing them to reduce costs by letting soil ecology do the work for them.
Evologic, a Vienna University of technology spinoff founded in 2016, raised $3 million for fungi-based soil stimulants designed to boost yield. Selected fungal species are made through ‘pseudo solid state fermentation’, a process that cultivates biomolecules inside microbes that are cultivated on a solid base rather than in a liquid solution.
The company takes a hard line on scientific integrity in bioagtech, something they see as key to scaling adoption among farmers. Having analysed many of their competitors’ products, they saw that the market was filled with sub-par products that put the reputation of organic biobased farming at risk. “I absolutely understand why farmers are sceptical and that’s the reason we have decided to go through larger distributors…we want them to act as a threshold or quality check for the products”, explained CEO Wieland Reichelt.
Still, some soils contain few nutrients to begin with and need chemical additions to achieve crop-supporting fertility. To solve this problem, some startups are manufacturing effective bio-based fertilisers that sidestep the need for any fossil-based synthetic nutrients. Anuvia Plant Nutreints, founded 2015, is one of them. In 2021, it received $103 Series C funding in 2021 to scale bio-based fertilisers from livestock and food waste, among other plant-based materials. Using this waste feedstock, Anuvia creates a circular, biobased nitrogen sulphur called SymTRX that can be used on a range of crops and can also be blended with conventional fossil-based nitrogen.
With the cash injection of 2021 they want to scale, grow, and extent their R&D activites. They will put much of its into its new Plant City production facility in Florida which began production in early 2023. Anuvia’s product is already used on commercial farms in the US and the CEO anticipates the product will be used on around 3.5 million acres by 2022.
Pivot Bio is one of the most innovative organic fertiliser companies out there. They produce nitrogen fixing microbes under the brand name PROVEN 40. Nitrogen mixing organisms are able to manufacture plant-ready nitrogen out of thin air. The product contains 40 microbes that form a symbiosis with corn plants and supply it with a steady stream of this most critical plant nutrient.
Pivot Bio has gained the trust of clients through years of lab and greenhouse trials, ending in a 2018 large-acre plot trail with US corn growers. A year after the large-scale trial began, they found that their product increased corn nitrogen uptake compared to controls. The results bagged them a $70 million series B round.
Pivot Bio’s is one of the few functional microbe products on the market to have received a carbon offset accreditation. This indicates a more general perk of microbial biostimulants: by increasing plant nutrient uptake, it cuts the need to continually apply more carbon-intensive fertilizer products. PROVEN 40 has been enabling corn farmers to cut out up to 40 pounds per acre of synthetic nitrogen, demonstrating that microbial agtech solutions could play a significant role in cutting scope 3 emissions in agriculture associated with fertiliser production.
Pivot Bio’s trial data adds to an accumulating body of evidence that organic modes of agriculture can maintain and even increase crop outputs. In 2022, Nature published a review of 30 long term field experiments across Europe and Africa that used Ecological Intensification Techniques – farming techniques designed to maintain natural ecosystem services. Some farms were able to maintain existing yields with fewer synthetic inputs. The techniques also increased yields in nutrient-poor areas traditionally dominated by low-output agriculture. Overall, researchers concluded that bio-based farming inputs can are a sustainable, equitable, and prodcutvie pathway to maintain food supply while decreasing synthetic fertilizer production and use.
For bio-agetch to work most effectively, they must be integrated into whole new systems of farm management. Although many farmers may consider an organic transition, they are often not clear on how they should alter their operations to achieve this.
For this reason, bio agtech startups are selling a suite of farm services to accompany their tech. Indigo Agriculture is one of them. Their Market+ is a digital marketing application that enables farmers to sell directly to interested buyers. Indigo also offers a course called ‘Carbon College’ to educate farmers in carbon farming techniques that encourage farm soils to sequester as much Co2 as possible. In addition, the companies have their own certified carbon credit scheme where they pay farmers per ton of carbon they sequester using soil management techniques.
One obstacle to bio agtech adoption is visibility and marketing. The Dutch government set out to solve this by promoting new green agrochemicals in a recently launched Biobased Products Database. It collates all biobased products being produced and marketed in the Netherlands. Products listed must meet European standards that define the extent to which a product can go under the biobased appellation. Before inclusion, each one is asssed by an editorial borad consisting of exports from six organisations active in the bio-based economy, including the Centre of Expertise Biobased Economy (COE BBE).
It is only a matter of time when the ecological costs of the seven-decade experiment in synthetic farming will become apparent, even in food-secure regions of the Global North. Yet if high yield in 20th century agriculture relied on breakthroughs in petrochemical synthetics, the 21st century is already seeing biological innovations offering ways to reduce agriculture’s impacts while ensuring a secure food supply into the future.