Russia’s biggest exports are oil and gas. But the country is also the largest global exporter of fertilizer; and as the world continues to react to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, fertilizer prices for farmers have spiked and could even lead to an increase in food costs. Yet, in the same way this tragic war might move the world faster toward renewable energy, could it also nudge farmers to find ways to use less fertilizer?
Fertilizer causes serious environmental problems; it’s a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, makes soil less healthy, and pollutes waterways when it runs off fields. (In Florida right now, state officials are trying to save starving manatees who lost their food source because extra fertilizer from farms upstream made the water fill with algae.) A handful of startups are working on solutions that can help reduce the amount of fertilizer that farmers need.
The current crisis in Ukraine “exacerbates a problem that predated the invasion,” says Karsten Temme, CEO of Pivot Bio, a startup that uses microbes to pull nitrogen from the air in farm fields. “Because of all the supply chain shocks we’ve seen over the last couple of years, commodity prices have just been wildly volatile.” As sanctions on Russia grow more severe, and Russia also threatens to stop exporting fertilizer, prices have gone up more. Here are a few startups that could help reduce farmers’ dependence on conventional fertilizer.
Nitrogen fertilizer is typically made from natural gas at large factories. Pivot Bio uses microorganisms that can be added to the soil for specific crops, like corn, and then produce nitrogen on demand—as much as 40 pounds per acre, or enough to offset a meaningful portion of traditional fertilizer use. As the product develops, the company wants it to eventually be a sole source of nutrients. The startup says that it will triple the number of acres using the product this year.
“I think that that’s a sign of just how scalable the technology is,” says Temme. “Building a new Haber-Bosch facility can take years, if not decades, and it requires hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of capital expenditures to build that kind of facility. For us, the equivalent is think about a microbrewery or a winery—a facility that would make yeast. It’s really replacing a railcar full of nitrogen fertilizer products with the equivalent of a handful of baker’s yeast.”
Indigo Ag, another startup, makes microbial products that can help plants use fertilizer more efficiently. The company also helps farmers get paid for adopting practices that can improve soil health, like planting cover crops, which can also reduce fertilizer use. Because these “regenerative” farming techniques can also capture extra carbon in the soil, farmers can earn carbon credits for adopting them.
A startup called Augmenta makes a tractor attachment that uses cameras and AI to analyze plants and soil, and then can apply the precise amount of fertilizer to the right areas as the tractor goes over a field. Because the fertilizer is only applied where it’s needed rather than sprayed over the whole field, less is used, but the yield of the crop is maximized.
Other companies have solutions in progress that haven’t yet come to the market, including Joyn Bio, which is currently testing microbes that can help crops like wheat and corn “fix” nitrogen from the air, similar to Pivot Bio. Kula Bio, another startup, is testing bacteria that can also produce fertilizer in the field, reducing the use of synthetic fertilizer by as much as 80%. Though the industry is in its early stages now, it could someday completely replace conventional fertilizer production. “Farmers will do it if it works, and if it’s cost competitive,” Kula Bio CEO Bill Brady told Fast Company in a recent interview.