David Archer, Managing Director of Advanced Plant Nutrition, talks to Gary Thomas about the impending world food crisis and issues with phosphate fertilisers in this revealing ‘insights from industry’.
GT: Could you please provide a brief introduction to the industry that Advanced Plant Nutrition works within and outline the key drivers?
DA: Advanced Plant Nutrition operates within the agricultural industries, specialising in crop nutrition. The key drivers in agriculture are crop quality and yield and the cost of inputs such as chemicals and fertilisers. These are the critical inputs that Advanced Plant Nutrition can influence.
Other drivers such as the cost of water, fuel and servicing farm debt are also important and the use of MaxSil™ can reduce their impact by increasing farm profitability.
GT: Could you please give a brief overview and company history of Advanced Plant Nutrition?
DA: Advanced Plant Nutrition was formed in 2008 after early research identified positive results from plant trials with finely ground waste glass. The original material was actually produced for another purpose and industry, and the chance discovery that it increased plant growth spurred the determination to use good science to test and refine the product and commercialise the process.
GT: Your flagship product is MaxSil™ - Please could you describe how this is produced?
DA: MaxSil™ is a complex calcium silicate derived from the “orphan” glass (small fragments of mixed colour) that no one wants. The material is firstly thoroughly sorted, cleaned and pre ground. The second stage of the process utilises a sophisticated grinding system to take the material to a consistency that is finer than talcum powder. At this stage, proprietary treatment (including introducing additives) is carried out to produce a spherical granule 4-6 mm in size. All throughout this process there is strict quality assurance and in fact, not only is MaxSil™ made to stringent quality standards, it is also certified as an Allowed Input for Organic Farming.
There is also a liquid version of MaxSil™ that can be used in applications from home gardens up to high volume, broad acre tractor driven spray equipment.
GT: Can all types of glass be used to produce MaxSil?
DA: Yes. MaxSil™ is made from all the different colour glass (green, brown and clear) that is co-mingled.
GT: Why is silicon so important in plant nutrition?
DA: There is a large body of evidence that shows that Silicon (Si) is now recognized as an essential element for sustainable production of many plant species, particularly sugar cane, rice, turf, grain and vegetable crops.
Improved Si nutrition has been shown to assist crops:
Withstand the effects of drought,
Provide improved resistance to disease and pathogenic fungal attack,
Reduce susceptibility to abiotic stress,
Help neutralize soil acidity,
Provide structural strength thus reducing the incidence of lodging,
Decrease manganese (Mn) toxicity,
Improve phosphorous (P) nutrition and increase yields
GT: Is the world heading towards a food crisis in the near future? If so, what can be done to stop this?
DA: The world is heading towards a food crisis.
Around the world some 2 million hectares of rain fed and irrigated agricultural land is lost to production each year due to severe land degradation and other factors including urban sprawl. The conundrum therefore is that as human population increases, even more food is required to be extracted from less land. The problem is further exacerbated by the changing dietary habits of emerging nations’ populations, who are demanding more protein in their diets.
In six of the last seven years, demand for grains and oil seeds has exceeded production.
Each year, total food production increases by 1% - 2%, whilst the world population is increasing by approximately 4%. Current projections by the UN are that a 100% increase in food production is required by 2050 to sustain demand without considering losses in yield and land area as a result of land degradation. World food production lags some 20% behind demand.
An example of the severity of the situation can be seen in China, where it has been estimated that 8 million hectares of arable land have been lost in the last decade. In the last five years, half of new construction land was converted from existing or potential farmland and at the same time the population is growing by 10 million annually.
Current world consumption of fertiliser has in recent times outstripped supply by up to 20%, and while prices have fluctuated wildly, the medium term price trend has shown prices to more than double over the past 8 years. Silicate based additives have a critical role to play by enhancing fertiliser and nutrient uptake, and have proven links to increased yields, decreased sodium uptake and increased resistance to pests and disease. Effective silicate materials such as MaxSil™ have the potential to reduce fertiliser use whilst simultaneously increasing yields.
GT: How is phosphate fertiliser damaging to the environment?
DA: The manufacture of phosphate fertiliser generates 1 tonne of carbon dioxide for each tonne produced.
Uncontrolled phosphate run off into waterways can assist in the growth of blue-green algae with devastating effects on marine life as well as the generation of excess levels of methane gas which, in turn, can cause further environmental damage by causing damage to the ozone layer.
MaxSil™ can replace up to 50% of normal crop phosphate inputs and thus help reduce the use of these carbon intensive fertilisers. Even with these lower phosphate inputs, MaxSil™ still generates higher yields.
In addition, the glass feedstock utilised in the manufacture of MaxSil™ has no beneficial use and is normally taken to landfill so there are further environmental benefits by reducing the use of scarce landfill resources.
GT: There are several environmental benefits to MaxSil, but what are the benefits from a business perspective?
DA: Because MaxSil™ is a value added product there is potential to put value back into the recycling chain and make it more worthwhile for collectors to strive for better collection rates for waste glass.
GT: Has MaxSil been produced on a commercial scale so far?
DA: MaxSil™ is being produced on a commercial scale, and marketed (primarily through the Landmark organisation) from our pilot plant in Toowoomba, Qld. The product is being used on a variety of crops such as sugar cane, potatoes, cotton, tea, ginger, onions and macadamias.
GT: Advanced Plant Nutrition has recently been selected as a finalist in the Australian Clean Technologies Competition 2012- could you tell us a little bit more about this and what it means to the company?
DA: We are quite excited to be selected for the finals of the Australian Clean Tech Open. We are really looking forward to the opportunities that may come from being profiled and showcased and the advantages that come from being nominated as part of such a prestigious program.
GT: Do you feel enough is being done to promote growing Cleantech companies in Australia?
DA: I think that there are increasing opportunities – I certainly believe that we are not lagging the world in this respect and appear to be up there with the best. The Australian Government is to be commended for the work done so far to recognise and showcase Clean Technologies in Australia.
GT: What does the future hold for Advanced Plant Nutrition?
DA: We have the technology and product to make a significant impact on farm incomes in Australia. Our goals are to firstly impact on Australian agriculture, and then take the product to the world.