Blog written by TFF’s writer & poet-in-residence: Peter Bickerton
Sustainable farming inputs are critical in the face of climate change, rising energy costs, and war. But how do we get farmers to use them?
Fertilizers and pesticides have undoubtedly helped us to produce food in abundance. But, this has come at a great cost to our soils and environment. What’s more – with war, the pandemic and climate change disrupting supply chains, we are seeing another dark side to our over reliance on agrochemicals: food inflation.
The rising costs of natural gas and raw materials due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have pushed the price of traditional synthetic fertilizers higher than ever. These soaring prices means that the procurement of fertilisers is complicated, even impossible, for farmers everywhere.
Without fertilisers, farmers face lower crop yields – and this has devastating ripple effects throughout our food system. Food prices are spiking, and a grave global food crisis is unfolding before our eyes. Arif Husain, the chief economist at the World Food Programme, recently warned that “the world is exploding with food insecurity.”
The good news is that there are greener, locally-produced alternatives that can help farmers fertilise and care for their crops naturally. Bio-based inputs that use microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, and RNA Interference (RNAi) mechanisms offer valid surrogates for synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and can play a crucial role in driving towards a more sustainable and stable agri-food sector.
Yet, despite the fact that these biological products have been around for a long time – starting with rhizobium being used for legumes more than 125 years ago – many farmers are still not knowledgeable about how to use them, or worse, skeptical about their efficacy. They don’t want to risk losing their crops – and their profits – if the products don’t work.
Making the transition to biological crop inputs takes time and concerted effort. A sudden reduction in the use of conventional agrochemicals can lead to a drop in crop yields, simply because our cropping systems are badly-addicted to the “instant nutrition” that chemicals provide. We urgently need to find ways to “re-educate” our soils and ecosystems so that biologicals can take off.
“How might we enable farmers to learn about and use sustainable farming methods and make informed decisions that help them to integrate biologicals into their practices?”
🌽 But first…some input on crop inputs
After WWII, human population growth became so rapid that novel technologies were introduced to meet food demand and prevent mass famine that was predicted in many parts of the world.
A new agricultural era known as the ‘Green Revolution’ led to the widespread adoption of high-yielding crop varieties that were hungry for nitrogen-based fertilisers. Add pesticides to the mix and global crop yields of all types – from cereals to potatoes and legumes – soared. Yields of corn have skyrocketed since the mid 20th century from around two to over ten tonnes per hectare in the US.
We fed the world’s population, but, for all that progress, we’ve paid a heavy price. We’re now realizing the alarming effects that energy- and fossil fuel-intensive agrochemicals have had on biodiversity and the environment.
From the insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables to the very soils our crops are rooted in, agriculture’s life support systems, and our food security, are severely under threat.
Throw war into the mix, and our reliance on chemical fertilizers – less available due to sanctions and high energy costs – exacerbates a food crisis already straining from two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of the negative impacts of fertilizers include:
🌎 Carbon emissions
The Haber process makes the ammonia used in synthetic fertilisers, such as ammonium nitrate. Hydrogen that is extracted from natural gas is then mixed with nitrogen taken from the air at super high temperatures and pressures. To get hydrogen from natural gas, you mix methane with steam. The process releases CO₂ as a by-product – but the initial energy use to generate the temperatures and pressures required are huge too! In fact, the Haber process is one of the single-biggest CO₂ emitting industries on Earth. This single industrial chemical process accounts for more than 1% of global carbon emissions.
A lot of the fertilizers never actually end up in a crop, but are washed away by rain into streams and rivers. That causes huge issues far downstream from farms, because plants aren’t the only nitrogen guzzlers out there.
The algal blooms driven by agricultural run-off are so large that dead zones measuring millions of square kilometres have formed where river estuaries spill leached nutrients into the sea. They’re called dead zones because the algal blooms block light from the sun, use up a lot of the oxygen and nutrients in the water, and leave little left behind for life on the seabed.
🐝 Pollinator decline
Pesticides that fend off the ravages of pests, weeds, and disease can also be indiscriminate, killing the very animals we rely on for food production. The vast majority of our fruits and vegetables rely intrinsically on insect pollination, so without them, we’re nowhere.
Overuse of pesticides has contributed hugely to ecological deterioration in recent decades. Insect populations are “plummeting everywhere we look” as a result of habitat loss and exposure to toxic agrochemicals.
🪨 Soil health
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing agriculture is the sickness of our soils – the result of industrial agricultural practices.
Particularly at risk are the creatures and microorganisms that live in and amongst plant roots – from nutrient-churning earthworms and beetles to phosphorus-foraging fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Healthy soils are teeming with life, yet, they way we have treated them has left much of them sterile.
That’s a big problem for agriculture, because biodiverse soil communities are essential for nutrient cycling, taking nutrients from decomposing material and the air, and making them available to plants. A diverse community of soil microbes can even deter pathogens, the very thing that many pesticides are supposed to combat.
💡 Cost and availability
Aside from negative effects on the planet, as mentioned, due to rising energy costs and Russia’s war with Ukraine, this year fertilizers are becoming less economically viable as an option.
In a recent podcast, Jack Nicas explains to The Daily’s Michael Barbaro that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilisers. Heavy sanctions mean those are sitting unused, pushing prices up while reducing their availability.
As they quote in the podcast, “the answer to a food crisis is to grow more food, but you can’t grow more food if you don’t have the fertilizer.” The effects cascade not just into crop production but downstream to all kinds of foodstuffs, resulting in food inflation.
📈 Sustainable, biological inputs improve soil health
All that said, agricultural inputs such as fertilizers are still absolutely vital if we are to achieve global food security. The losses to farmers from pests and disease in particular can be devastating.
Inputs are not the enemy, we just have to make them more in tune with nature’s needs.
It’s not as if we’re new to this. 2,500 years ago, ancient Amazonian farmers discovered techniques that we’re only just learning to mimic again today. Their ‘terra preta’ soils, amongst the more fertile on Earth, were generated by adding charcoal, bones, manure and broken pottery. The aerated, porous environment that this mixture created is perfect for soil microbes, and has the extra benefit of preventing leaching.
Today, that’s the baton companies like Hello Nature are picking up.
Hello Nature is part of a new generation of companies that understand the importance of agricultural inputs, but who agree a new direction is needed. A direction that involves sustainable, biological alternatives.
From organic fertilisers to microbes finely tuned to boost plant growth while protecting against pathogens (and even biochar, that’s a direct nod to terra preta), the solutions are out there.
A great example of the next generation approach to this problem comes from TFF Challenge 2017 Runner-up Agrospheres.
Agrospheres, now a leader in developing the next generation of environmentally-friendly crop protection products, is a Charlottesville-based company that just six years ago was a student team at the University of Virginia.
Their bio-based approach involves biologicals such as plant extracts and RNA-based pest control that helps boost crop production without the negative environmental consequences.
“Plants have great natural components that can control fungi and insects,” says Payam Pourtaheri, Founder and CEO of Agrospheres. “Some are really potent. They work just as well as chemicals, you just have to control them.”
Agrospheres’ capsules do just that, encasing powerful natural plant exudates (which in nature are released from roots to scavenge nutrients or defend against disease) for steady release, as well as natural biopesticides such as RNA that are highly targeted to specific pests but are prone to quick degradation.
“One issue with using RNA-based pesticides is that fungi, for example, have very specific ways to combat them,” Payam explains. “Our biodegradable encapsulation system helps both stabilise RNA and overcome pest defences.”
While the company’s solution is rooted in pest control, the process is circular, meaning that the one-step fermentation process produces zero waste, the left-overs instead going on to make a nutritious fertiliser.
Local solutions as a buffer against geopolitical instability
As we witness how prone global agriculture is to geopolitical strife, farmers will surely benefit from more local solutions, too:
Thought For Food Community member Krilltech has developed a leaf-absorbed fertiliser, arboline, that is based on plant natural compounds and synthesised entirely from raw materials right in Brazil.
In Kenya, 2018 TFF Challenge Runner-up Safi Organics has local farmers right at the heart of their solution. Their approach takes fertiliser production away from large-scale, centralised facilities, allowing village-level manufacture locally available resources and labour.
Among their products is Safi Biochar, which along with their other farm waste-derived fertilisers “increases farmers’ yields, but also has environmental benefits as it actively sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, and curbs the farm waste disposal problem,” says Joyce Kamande.
The vision of Safi Organics is “to eradicate poverty among rural farmers by using technology to decentralise, manufacture and sell high yielding organic fertiliser.” Their approach takes fertiliser production away from large-scale, centralised facilities, allowing village-level manufacture locally available resources and labour.
Speaking of biochar, 2021 TFF Challenge Finalist Humica (and one of the stars of our movie Generation Food) has created an integrated, systemic approach to unlock the carbon sequestration potential of biochar on small farms around the world, starting in their home country of Mexico. As the first step, Húmica applies soil assessment tools to understand the current physical, biological, and chemical properties of a farm’s soils. Then they recommend a specific biochar recipe that can best work on that soil type.
Terra preta 2.0 isn’t so far away after all.
Getting biological solutions to farmers
There are clearly solutions out there, so how do we get them to the farmer? Innovative solutions are also needed when it comes to education and awareness.
“From our experience, farmers are receptive to new products,” says Payam, “but as an industry we have to show that biologicals can be as effective as agrochemicals.”
Agrochemicals work, and farmers’ profits are at stake, which is why Payam and Agrospheres have adopted a step-by-step approach to introducing them.
“It’s farmers’ livelihoods we’re talking about,” Payam continues. “Our trials are made up so that our products compare at least to the best current industry standard.
“We work with farmers not to replace chemicals completely at first, but to introduce biologicals gradually over time, so we can show they’re effective. Building trust and data is key”
It’s a plan that’s paying off forAgrospheres, and a strategy that could help others, too.
So, in a world crying out for biological inputs to remediate and nourish our thirsty soils, while reducing our reliance on a centralised market prone to geopolitical instability, what’s your solution?
If you think you can achieve any of the below, we think you’d be perfect for our sustainable inputs topical prize at this year’s TFF Challenge.
- Digitally and cost-efficiently train farmers on the effective use biological inputs;
- Capture data on the positive impacts (environmental, economic, social) that arise from the use of biological inputs;
- Help farmers capture value from their use of biological inputs (e.g. through storytelling / marketing, access to premium market opportunities, etc.)