Various soil scientists and agricultural specialists gathered during the Fertasa 2019 Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition Symposium at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria, to cast more light on sustainable and profitable agricultural practices relating to the use of fertilisers and soil additives.

Integrating biosolutions with conventional practices

Jaco Marais, technical development manager at UPL OpenAg and one of the main speakers during the two-day event, gave an overview of the biofertiliser industry. He explained its relevance, not just in South African agriculture, but on a global scale.

He pointed out that soil organisms influence the environment, which in turn, affects other soil organisms. This symbiotic relationship requires a greater comprehension of the bigger picture in respect of soil health.

When considering what products to incorporate into farming practices, the short- and long-term effects of soil treatments must be taken into account. It has to meet growing food security demands, he added. “One possible solution that may help to ensure food security in 50 years’ time, is integrating biosolutions with conventional practices.”

Jaco Marais of UPL OpenAg

Factors driving the biological industry

Many factors drive the biological industry and the products that it represents. According to Jaco, these factors include reduced residues by regulatory authorities and specialised market entities, an increase in consumer demand for food that is less reliant on chemical usage, lower risk profiles, improved formulations and longer shelf life.

“From an economic point of view the global net worth of biological products, which covers the entire biosolutions spectrum, will reach just over US$11 billion in 2022. It is also estimated that the biofertiliser industry will grow locally to just under US$5 billion by 2025. Looking at these projected growth rates, it seems there is enough reason to start investing in the bioindustry,” he added.

Improving plant development

When it comes to defining a biofertiliser, an variety of interpretations invariably influence the focus of the fertiliser itself. Some biofertiliser definitions include non-living substances, while other definitions only recognise living micro-organisms. According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the South African definition states that a biofertiliser can be any substance or micro-organism applied to a seed, plant or root that modifies or improves plant development.

“The focus of biofertilisers centres on improving plant development, alleviating abiotic stress, improving soil conditions and substituting or enhancing conventional fertiliser applications or practices,” Jaco added.

According to Jaco, biofertilisers can include living micro-organisms such as fungi or bacteria and non-living substances such as plant extracts or biochemically related compounds.

Benefits and disadvantages of organic fertilisers

The benefits of biofertilisers include a reduction in environmental impact and toxicological profiles. It can also be applied with a wide variety of application equipment and as part of organic or conventional farming systems.

Some of the disadvantages include application challenges, compatibility issues with conventional chemistry and the effects of certain environmental conditions that can impact the efficacy of the active ingredients.

Furthering product development

Jaco ended his presentation by pointing out why biofertilisers are very important in South African agriculture. “Biofertilisers keep us competitive in an international arena; it provides alternative solutions to challenges the sector is currently facing and it stimulates economic growth.

“Going forward it is important to maintain a balance between the appropriate regulatory requirements and the cost of development. If the industry is not seeing a sufficient return on their investment, little emphasis will be put on furthering product development,” he concluded.

A global perspective

Other speakers at the symposium included Dr Pieter Haumann, CEO of Fertasa, Pius Floris, director of Plant Health Cure, Dr Louis Ehlers, manager of agricultural services development at Omnia, and Chris Gazey, a senior research scientist at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in Western Australia.

Gazey leads the soil science and crop nutrition portfolio within the Grains Research and Industry Innovation Directorate which focuses on the integrated management of soil constraints and nutrition. His presentation at the symposium focused on regenerative agriculture and showcased how soil acidity in the South-Western agricultural region has slowly been combated through soil liming and strategic tillage.

Increasing fertiliser efficacy

Dr Pieter Haumann, CEO of Fertasa

The CEO of Fertasa, Dr Pieter Haumann, said that the biggest goal they are currently striving towards is increasing the efficacy of fertiliser. “We are nearing a precipice where we won’t be able to better our fertiliser solely through the aid of inorganic, chemically composed variants. The stewardship of our soils has to be taken into account.

“However, certainty regarding sustainability and profitability pertaining to new approaches that lowering the amount of soil acidification and remedy soil compaction is also really important,” he concluded. – Claudi Nortjé, Plaas Media