Tech companies are raising hundreds of millions of dollars, including backing from agriculture heavyweights like Bayer AG, in developing farm products that use living things like microbes and seaweed to nourish crops and lessen the need for synthetic fertiliser.
Microbes, including fungi and viruses, have been available for decades as treatments to protect plants from insects and disease, with mixed results. But developers are increasingly deploying them as natural ways to nurture crops while maintaining crop production levels.
Such products could help farmers lessen applications of nitrogen that can pollute waterways and generate nitrous oxide, at a time when farm emissions face greater scrutiny. Canada wants to cut fertiliser emissions by 2030, while the European Union aims to reduce fertiliser usage.
Tech companies are attracting funding as commercial nitrogen and potash fertilisers are in tight supply, inflating the costs of food production.
Investment bank Rabobank sees the US$3 billion biostimulants industry growing by 12 per cent to 15 per cent annually over the next five years. Global investments in crop biostimulant and control products more than doubled in 2021 from the previous year, to US$777 million, according to preliminary data from venture capital firm AgFunder.
But microbial fertilisers are largely unregulated, with few studies on how effective they are at boosting crop yields. Only a handful of US states require companies to supply data on the products' efficacy. The European Union will impose its first efficacy requirement for biostimulants in July 2022, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has issued draft guidance for public review.
"Unfortunately, there is an element of buyer beware out there," said Jon Treloar, agronomist at Denmark-based Novozymes, one of the biggest sellers of biological agriculture products. One contains a fungus that grows alongside plant roots and releases phosphate, a crop nutrient, from the soil.
Unlike some companies, Novozymes shares field testing results with farmers, Treloar said.
"If growers have a bad experience, it can really tar the entire industry."
Still, Iowa farmer Jeff Taylor likes what he has seen from biostimulants.
Taylor applied a new product from startup Pivot Bio and a reduced fertiliser application on a cornfield last year, while applying a full rate of fertiliser on another field.
He said the field with Pivot's product yielded slightly more corn per acre.
"I was skeptical that there was a biological product that would help the crop," Taylor said. "This is one that I personally feel is working for me."
Pivot, a private company whose investors include oilseed crusher Bunge Ltd, launched commercial sales of their microbial fertiliser in 2019 and says farmers use it on more than 1 million acres. It raised US$430 million last year from DCVC and Singapore investment company Temasek.
The microbes in Pivot's Proven 40 consume sugar found in the roots of a corn, wheat or sorghum plant, producing an enzyme that converts nitrogen found in the air to ammonia, a crop nutrient.
"Microbes that can fix nitrogen in the air into ammonia have been the holy grail of agriculture for 100 years," said Pivot CEO Karsten Temme.
Pivot's products do not generate the high emissions associated with manufacturing nitrogen fertiliser, nor the nitrous oxide emissions created when synthetic fertiliser degrades over time, Temme said.
Joyn Bio, a joint venture of Bayer and biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks, expects commercial sales of a microbial seed treatment in three to four years, said CEO Mike Miille. Joyn engineers microbes in its Boston lab that fix nitrogen from the air and deliver it to corn plants in a form that they can use.
Midwest field trials began last year of the treatment, which aims to allow farmers to cut use of conventional fertiliser by 50 per cent while maintaining yields.
FERTILISER COMPANIES ON BOARD
Privately held Locus Agricultural Solutions says its microbial soil treatments help crops absorb more nutrients and less water and captures and stores more climate-warming carbon underground, generating carbon credits. The credits, generated when carbon capture claims are verified, can be sold to buyers looking to offset their emissions.
The company, which sells its products in the United States and is expanding into Europe, has seen revenues jump 50 per cent or more year over year, a growth rate that CEO Chad Pawlak says is expected to continue for the next two to three years due to soaring farm input costs.
"When you see the double-digit percentage increases in (fertiliser) costs, the conversation around microbes is changing significantly," Pawlak said. "We're able to unlock some of those nutrients that were bound up in the soil over the decades."
Fertiliser and seed companies are getting onboard.
Nutrien sells biostimulants in its farm supply stores and Yara International produces biosimulants based on seaweed and humic substances.
Seed company Corteva is launching a biological product this spring that it says captures nitrogen from the atmosphere and converts it into ammonium, a fertiliser that plants can use, a spokesperson said.
Bayer's venture investment unit, Leaps by Bayer, has funded microbe-focused startups Andes and Sound Agriculture.
But not everyone is convinced biostimulants work.
University of Minnesota soil scientist Daniel Kaiser tested Pivot's Proven product on six sites over the past two seasons with less-than-optimal nitrogen fertiliser applications and only one site showed an improved yield.
"With a lot of these (biostimulant products) the scientific principles are sound. But taking them from a concept to something that will work in the field, that's where they tend to fall apart," he said.
Europe accounts for half the global market, according to the European Biostimulants Industry Council. Farmers there initially used them mainly for organic production and on high-value fruit and vegetable crops, but now increasingly deploy them in conventional crops in response to the European Union's drive to make agricultural production more sustainable.
Plants can also support crop growth. Acadian Plant Health harvests seaweed from the Atlantic Ocean and uses extracts of its active molecules in products to improve crop use of nutrients.
The global focus on curbing emissions and consumer attention to how food is produced have given the biostimulant sector momentum, said James Maude, Acadian's senior vice president.
"It had bad connotations of being snake oil. (Now) it's like the stars are aligned."