Towards more sustainable fertilisers
As the world’s population grows so will our use of synthetic fertilisers. Innovations mean more sustainable options exist, but they still must be viable
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
The health of the soil we cultivate lies at the heart of regenerative agriculture. I've been travelling around France to learn more about a pair of innovative companies that could ultimately reduce our reliance on artificial fertilisers. My first port of call is Léon where a biotech start-up is using a zero-waste fermentation process to produce more sustainable chemicals from recycled sugar beet waste instead of from fossil fuels.
We don't have any waste at the end of the process. We don't consume any water. And we will reduce massively CO2 emissions.
From next year the company will produce organic acids in industrial quantities at its first commercial plant in northeastern France. Working with local sugar beet farmers, the company says using its circular model, the carbon footprint of its assets will be 81 per cent lower than existing petro-based equivalents and will produce a valuable byproduct, an organic-grade fertiliser.
At the end of the process we have a residue which is a very high-value fertiliser with very high potassium content, which will go back to the ground to start a new cycle of biomass production.
France currently imports around 80,000 tonnes of potassium for fertiliser. Do you think that Afyren could actually prevent France, in the future, from having to import any of that potassium. Is that an idea?
During the process we will produce 16,000 tonnes of seeds and the same kind of idea in terms of volumes for the fertiliser. It's not the main goal, but if we can reduce the importation, then it's good news.
According to the United Nations, by 2050 we'll need 70 per cent more food to feed 9.6bn. of us. Turning biomass byproducts into fertiliser could alleviate the impacts that extra food production may have on the environment, therefore improving long-term sustainability.
I've arranged a Zoom call with Edward Someus, an expert on unexploited biomass.
One of the key challenges is how to replace the chemo-ssynthetic and petrochemical mineral fertilisers.
New research claims that synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are responsible for about 2.4 per cent of global greenhouse gases, but Someus is concerned that circular, organic alternatives are being developed too slowly. There's a lot of research going on in this space at the moment, isn't there?
Yes. However, we have to say that many of the research programmes very often cannot be converted into farmers' reality. So there is a gap between basic research and application.
The global biofertilizer market is estimated to grow from $9.3bn in 2020 to $17bn by 2026. Investment funds may be key to accelerating both growth and the leap from the theoretical to the practical.
There's so much that needs to be done. There is no way that these small companies will be able to do that on their own. We don't have time enough for them to wait that they grow for 50 years.
Astanor is a VC specialising in agritech. It played a significant role in the growth of what is now the world's largest vertical insect farm.
Could we maybe apply this to a real world, example maybe Ynsect which started off as quite a small company and has now grown to become a unicorn? How did Astanor help on that journey?
We decided to front and run the last round of financing because we felt the thesis for investment at scale was there.
Ynsect breeds and processes mealworms to produce high-protein supplements for animal feed and human consumption. The faecal matter from the mealworms is turned into fertiliser, or frass pellets.
Using the waste of agriculture to make it a fertiliser is a wonderful system because then you're not competing against on the use of the land. The use of agricultural waste is a huge part of the future.
Agriculture itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
Agriculture and food systems are basically accounting for 20 per cent to 30 per cent of greenhouse gas and carbon emission, but there is this magic of agriculture, which is that we can put, and we should put, carbon back into the soil.
But if there is magic in agriculture, we probably need to see it sooner rather than later. Because according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, by 2050 worldwide use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers is set to increase by over 50 per cent..