Chemistry holds one of the keys to more sustainable agriculture
Fertilizer additives enable reduced air pollution and increased crop yields
For most crops, nitrogen is the main growth factor. From wheat to corn, sugar cane to rice, potatoes to beets, everywhere around the world, cultures are boosted by farmers using nitrogen-based fertilizers. And the need for higher yields and more proteins is only going to grow as the global population increases and pressures on agriculture such as land and water scarcity get stronger.
While nitrogen has a positive effect on crops, problems arise because it’s generally used in the form of urea, the world’s most common nitrogenous fertilizer: 100 million tons are consumed every year. This molecule degrades naturally into ammonia, a highly volatile and noxious substance that rises up into the atmosphere instead of sinking into the ground, causing air pollution, specifically smog. What’s more, when the urea degrades, its nitrogen content is lost for the crops, and farmers lose money on both ends: underperforming yields and wasted fertilizer. In fact, up to 50% of its nitrogen content never actually makes it to the plant.
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An additive for sustainability
One solution to this problem is to slow down the degradation of urea. This ensures crops receive more of the nitrogen that was intended for them and that farmers reap the full benefits of the (increasingly expensive) fertilizer they buy. How? With a fertilizer additive that inhibits the urease enzyme present in the soil, which is responsible for the transformation of urea into ammonia.
That’s precisely the solution that Solvay’s Agricultural Specialties teams came up with a few years ago. By blocking the action of urease, Solvay’s phosphorus-derived additive reduces the amount of nitrogen lost as ammonia by 80%. Instead of degrading, it has time to sink into the soil and better feed the seed before ultimately getting absorbed into the ground, all with no negative impact on air quality, helping meet governmental regulations on air quality. In fact, these additives are now mandatory in urea in Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK.
“We started working on this around 2010, at a time when we were only present in the agricultural sector with our co-formulant portfolio,” says Benoît Abribat, VP Agricultural Specialties at Solvay. “We figured our mission was to bring more sustainability to this market, with agronomic solutions that could reduce the usage of phytosanitary products and fertilizers, limit losses and increase yields; in short, produce more with less.” Such is the philosophy behind the creation of Agrho® N Protect, a fertilizer additive that works even in small doses on all crops, at all plant stages.
Profitability and innovation combined
Agrho® N Protect is also the result of close collaboration with InVivo, the largest French agricultural cooperative. As it happens, the Agricultural Specialties team’s desire to develop agronomic solutions for more sustainable agriculture converged with a real market need. “We worked on reformulating a product for a better eco-toxic profile following a request from an American customer, and thought about how we could pursue in that direction,” explains Benoît. “In just a few months, we had a great formulation, but no market knowledge to launch it, so we approached InVivo to co-construct this project. Working with them gave us the confidence and knowledge we needed to move into other agricultural innovations such as biostimulants.”
“Our mission is to bring more sustainability to the agriculture market, with agronomic solutions that can reduce the usage of phytosanitary products and fertilizers, limit losses and increase yields; in short, produce more with less.”
Benoît Abribat, VP Agricultural Specialties, Solvay
Commercially launched since 2015, Agrho® N Protect is integrated exclusively in InVivo’s Novius fertilizer in France. The experience has since been duplicated across many other countries around the world, thanks to the legitimacy gained by working with InVivo. “This is an innovative approach for us because we’re offering a ready to use solution,” says Thomas Proffit, Global Fertilizer Coordinator at Solvay’s Agricultural Specialties.
Concretely speaking, Solvay’s additive is incorporated at 0.1% to 0.3% to the urea coating applied on the granule. About a hundred agronomic trials were conducted over three years to prove the benefits in real-life conditions, with various soil and weather conditions.
With the price of urea skyrocketing, the economic gain it provides for farmers is considerable, and getting bigger. “The field trials conducted with independent technical institutes demonstrated that €1 invested yields €3,” says Thomas. “Our product increases the price of fertilizer by only 15%, so it’s a vastly profitable operation for farmers.” It’s also a major change in the fertilizer segment where innovation doesn’t happen that often.