As the agriculture industry grapples with soaring fertilizer costs and climate-related pressure to reduce the use of these products, some farmers are considering different ways to feed their crops.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused prices to spike amid a global fertilizer shortage last spring, which put many farmers in a difficult situation: paying exorbitant prices for traditional fertilizers or consider different options.
Some resorted to the conventional method of spreading manure on the fields (which caused a shortage of animal poo in parts of North America), while others were considering switching to a variety of substitutes to supply nutrients to their crops.
One such alternative is technology devised by Gary Lewis, a southern Alberta farmer who is growing mustard, wheat and yellow peas on his 1,600 hectares of land this summer. To grow these crops, he does not use traditional fertilizers. In fact, he hasn’t used one in 20 years.
Instead, it relies on technology it developed, called Bio-Agtive, which collects exhaust from its tractors and injects the material back into the soil as a carbon-based biofertilizer.
Lewis says interest in Bio-Agtive has surged this year, likely driven by dollars and cents. With last year’s drought, some farmers struggled to pay their bills, then, he said, when fertilizer prices soared this spring, many family farms felt the pain again. financial crisis.
“If there’s no need to change, you won’t change,” he said, noting that he hopes research into the effectiveness of Bio-Agtive will inspire more people to adopt the technology.
Tinkering with tractors and plant science
The fourth-generation farmer and father of five says he came close to financial ruin in the years his crops and soil failed.
A few decades ago, he began to question how much fertilizer he was using and was intrigued by the idea of taking the exhaust carbon from the tractor’s diesel engine and feeding it into the floor.
Lewis, who is also an auto mechanic, started tinkering in his workshop. His wife, Barb, said he became obsessed with plant science.
“He was reading science books on plant nutrition,” she said. “Then I would see him making plants in egg cartons, putting seeds in and dropping emissions from vehicle exhaust and watching them grow.”
After much trial and error, Lewis built his own carbon capture and sequestration unit. Hoses connect the diesel exhaust from his tractor to a system that cools the gases. The filtered carbon water is spread with the seeds or channeled through its irrigation system. He says he saw almost immediate improvements in his crops and soil.
“C02 is the building block of life. It made sense that I could take the emissions from this tractor and run it through the air delivery system with the seed and try it out. Why not? experimentation,” he said.
Soaring fuel and fertilizer prices are the main reason why this year’s crop is considered the most expensive in Canadian history.
Other startups that offer alternatives to traditional fertilizers say they too know growing demand. Some companies, including Pivot Bio, Anuvia, and Kula Bio, offer plant-based fertilizer products and the use of microbes as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option.
The federal government has announced a goal of reducing fertilizer emissions by 30% by the end of 2020 and recently concluded a months-long consultation process on this climate goal.
An industry-led report released earlier this month suggests Canadian farmers can likely only meet half of the federal government’s goal by increasing the efficiency and accuracy of traditional fertilizer use.
Since 1990, the agricultural sector has generated about 10% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the federal government.
One of the main challenges facing alternative fertilizer startups is convincing farmers to try it. Many farmers are skeptical and reluctant to risk their livelihood on a new product.
Over the years, Lewis has patented his technology, traveled to agricultural shows and talked to growers.
A few hundred farmers have used the Bio-Agtive system, which mounts on the front of tractors and sells for between $65,000 and $95,000. Australian Mick Dennis is one of them.
“It didn’t take long to realize that it was a good concept and that it works very well in harmony with nature,” Dennis said in a phone interview, noting that he has seen an increase in development of the roots of his crops and the organic matter in the soil since he started using the system.
“It’s not just Bio-Agtif, it’s Bio-Agtif and good agricultural practices.”
Although the Lewis system has had some success with some farmers, there is still not enough scientific evidence to determine whether it produces a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to commercial fertilizers while still producing crops of similar size. At least not yet.
More than a decade ago, Jill Clapperton researched whether Bio-Agtive could harm the soil as part of her work as a research scientist at Agriculture Canada. It was not harmful, she said.
Whether Bio-Agtive is better than a commercial fertilizer is another story. Clapperton found that there were slight differences between a field without fertilizer and those treated with emissions from Lewis’s tractor.
“But the [crop yields] were significantly lower than when you use fertilizer,” she said.
However, in later research she participated in as a consultant to Montana State University-Northern in 2012, seed treated with the Lewis system was found to have fewer soil-borne fungal diseases.
“In fact, the soot and trace minerals from the exhaust that coated the seeds and that bit of heat actually acted as a seed treatment,” Clapperton said.
Whether the soil retains bio-active emissions and for how long, or how fields without fertilizer compare to those treated with bio-active emissions, remains to be seen.
“I’m immediately skeptical because I’m a scientist,” says Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Bio Resources at the University of Saskatchewan.
“I think there’s room in agriculture for all scales of practice, but,” she said, “ultimately the science has to be there.”
Conceptually, the idea behind Bio-Agtive makes sense, according to Daniel Alessi, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Alberta, although more research is needed to find out how effective Bio-Agtive is against commercial fertilizers.
“If you add carbon to the soil in the form of carbon nanotubes and other black carbon – i.e. very fine particles and diesel exhaust – it induces the colonization of microbes which themselves can then release nutrients from minerals in the soil,” he said. , noting that it could improve soil health and, ultimately, crop production.
More research is currently underway as scientists at Olds College in Alberta measure crop yields and collect tissue and soil samples for laboratory analysis. A final report on the results of the Bio-Agtif system is expected from the college in early 2023.
As he anticipates these discoveries, Lewis continues to meet farmers, build new Bio-Agtive systems and sell them to people willing to try something new to escape the high price of traditional fertilizers.