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Msg  250 of 261  at  1/29/2023 6:02:07 AM  by


Fixing Fertilizer

 Bloomberg businessweek (Online) 

Fixing Fertilizer

By: Elkin, Elizabeth, Bloomberg Businessweek, 00077135, 1/23/2023, Issue 4770 

Agriculture companies are making progress in the search for greener plant foods


Farmers depend on synthetic fertilizers to deliver the high crop yields required to meet global food demand, but that comes at a cost to the environment. Much of fertilizer production relies on natural gas or coal, accounting for just over 2% of the world’s climate-warming emissions, and chemical fertilizers contribute to agricultural runoff that damages wildlife. For growers, fertilizer costs can also be wildly unpredictable, because prices are based on the availability of commodities such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and gas.

All this has spurred a hunt for alternatives to mineral fertilizers that’s starting to achieve results. Agribusiness heavyweights including Bayer, Corteva and ArcherDaniels-Midland and a crop of startups are closing in on some solutions to reduce the use of conventional fertilizers, including turning to microbes, recycled organic waste and other lower-emission and chemical-free substitutes.

The industry’s resolve has been strengthened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which cut off almost a fifth of the world’s fertilizer exports for part of last year and also crimped gas supplies, causing US fertilizer prices to hit a record last March. While prices have fallen in the past few months, the benchmark North American index is still 80% higher than it was three years ago. “The recent instability has really clarified our focus on what solutions we can come out with now,” says Kelly Gillespie, Bayer AG’s vice president for digital ecosystem services.

Bayer is backing startups that are tapping into the ability of microbes to help plants access naturally occurring nutrients from their environment. Among those is Sound Agriculture Co., an Emeryville, California, company that makes stimulants for microbes. Its product, called Source, helps microbes harness more atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a usable form for plants and also break down phosphate in the soil. The company’s marketing materials say Source is “like caffeine for microbes.”

For 56-year-old Bob Pawlowski, who grows corn, soy and wheat on 1,600 acres in Verona, New York, the soaring cost of mineral fertilizers spurred a foray into the world of microbes. He saw prices of nitrogen, the most important additive for his corn, nearly double in 2022. By spending $13,250 on Source last year, he was able to reduce his annual fertilizer expenses by $64,655, or 30%, and also got a boost to his yield. Pawlowski says he expects more growers to start looking closely at fertilizer alternatives. “Everybody’s trying to find ways to save a little bit more in farming.”

Investment in the space is part of a wider push in agricultural technology. Venture capitalists injected $10.5 billion into ag-tech in 2021, a 58% increase from 2020, and 2023 is likely to see record funding directed at commercializing more agriculture technology, according to PitchBook.

Seed and crop protection giant Corteva Inc. says its powder product called Utrisha N improves nitrogen use by helping plants fix nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, a form of nitrogen they can use. Agricultural trading house Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. is working to develop a product that doesn’t require chemical processing and has a lower carbon footprint than conventional fertilizers. And Oslo-based Yara International ASA turns organic waste into fertilizer and plans to make fertilizer using hydropower to cut emissions by 90% compared with products made with gas.

A hurdle for anyone peddling fertilizer alternatives will be persuading farmers to switch from reliable products. Ben Riensche, who farms 14,000 acres in Iowa, says he tries one or two fertilizer substitutes a year in small patches, but he hasn’t had success with any. “Some of them are just really terrible,” he says.

As more companies work to find solutions for climate problems, however, there’s reason to be optimistic, says Kirk Haney, a managing partner at Radicle Growth, a venture capital fund based in San Diego that invests in ag-tech. “Technology’s going to result in producing more food or more calories of nutrition,” Haney says, “with fewer inputs and reduced environmental impact.”


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