Welcome to the New AG International wrap-up for 2021 – a year when we almost got back to normal. The 5th Biostimulants World Congress ran as both an in-person event and virtual event in November and provided a much-needed feel-good factor.
From last year’s review, one of the predictions – number four to be precise – was an escalation of tie-ups between big fertilizer companies and biological ones. We saw The Mosaic Company sign various agreements in the early part of 2021, with AgBiome and Sound Agriculture for example, following on from one signed with BioConsortia at the tail end of 2020. There was even a high-profile “people move” – Chuck Magro, former CEO of Nutrien, moving to CEO of Corteva, which was very active in 2021 in the biological space, such as a biofungicides distribution agreement with Gaiago and a nitrogen fixation product with Symborg.
Even this week, we have seen another big fertilizer company take a foothold in biologicals – Australia’s Incitec Pivot has invested $38 million for a majority stake in Australian Bio Fert Pty Ltd (ABF), and will build a large-scale plant in Australia. In other news, Yara acquired Finnish company Ecolan, an organic fertilizer business, and Nutrien Ag Solutions announced in April 2021 it was partnering with Elemental Enzymes to combat citrus greening using a peptide-based product.
Fertilizer prices – opportunity for bios?
Another warning from last year’s editorial – less so a prediction – was that specialty fertilizer prices were heating up, partly because of the increase in container freight. A combination of firming bulk freight and higher energy prices then contributed to commodity fertilizer prices rising through 2021. This has raised the question of whether it presents an opportunity for biological products that enhance nutrient-use efficiency. Anecdotal evidence received by New AG International suggests this is happening.
Automation in the field
Automation and the use of AI – prediction number three – appeared regularly on our news ticker during 2021. One example occurred in November with CNH Industrial signing an agreement with Monarch Tractor, a U.S.-based agtech company specializing in fully electric autonomous tractors. Carbon Robotics revealed its third-generation autonomous weeder in April.
Investors have also been keen on the sector. In September, Blue White Robotics, a platform that provides robots for autonomous farming, announced $37 million in Series B funding, led by New York-based global private equity and venture capital firm Insight Partners.
In-field and greenhouse automation are two areas in which we anticipate a lot of activity in the coming years. So much so, we can’t justify putting it on the predictions board again.
M&A and investment
Acquisition news regularly features on our news ticker, and 2021 was no exception, even given the economic rumblings from the pandemic. In April, Verdesian Life Sciences acquired Cytozyme Laboratories. Other activity included De Sangosse Group acquiring Agronaturalis; Stirling Square Capital/Sustainable Agro Solutions; Lesaffre/Advanced Biological Marketing; Bioline Agrosciences/Dudutec in Kenya. In May, there was a submission of interest by Syngenta and Valagro for SICIT Group, which was withdrawn soon afterwards.
Despite uncertainty in the global economy, there were investments in 2021 from agribusiness majors. ADM invested in Acies Bio, a specialist in fermentation technologies; and FMC Ventures invested in wireless sensor company Scanit Technologies in March 2021.
Financing rounds continued. Anuvia raised $103 million in February, while Pivot Bio secured $430 million in July.
2021 was also the year for two notable name changes – Italpollina to Hello Nature, and the European Crop Protection Association to CropLife Europe.
The irrigation sector, which is covered in New AG International, was also lively in regards to M&A in 2021. Netafim acquired Gakon in March; Valley Irrigation acquired Pivo Trac, which offers remote monitoring of centre pivots, and also Prospera Technologies, an Israeli-based AI company, focused on machine-learning and computer vision in agriculture.
Enhanced efficiency fertilizer
The Next Gen Fertilizer Challenge – a joint EPA-USDA competition launched in the U.S. with The Fertilizer Institute as a supporting organization – brought a focus to enhanced efficiency fertilizers through 2021. There were other developments during the year: Pursell Agri-Tech announced plans to build a new production plant in Savannah, Georgia (U.S.) for the company’s controlled-release fertilizers. (Read HERE an exclusive interview with Taylor Pursell of Pursell Agri-Tech in our New AG International e-book: SCRSFs - the next generation of fertilizers and beyond).
Koch Agronomic Services (KAS) acquired Compass Minerals North American micronutrient assets in April. Northern Nutrients announced plans to build a sulphur-enhanced urea facility in Saskatoon, Canada, while Kingenta acquired Noberfun, a specialty fertilizer producer.
SOP comes online in Australia
During 2021, sulphate of potash (SOP) capacity was starting to be commissioned in Australia. Kalium Lakes started commissioning its Beyondie project in Western Australia, and Salt Lake Potash also began its commissioning process. All eyes will be on Australia in 2022 as this product starts to come to market, but in 2021 it was announced that Canada would get a new SOP capacity too. In May, Saskatchewan Mining and Minerals Inc. (SMMI) said it was investing $220 million to upgrade its sodium sulphate plant to produce SOP at its facility in Chaplin.
Fertilizing Products Regulation
Before moving on to projections for 2022, it is worth noting that the EU Fertilising Products Regulation (FPR) will be applied in July 2022. Kristen Sukalac, consulting partner with Prospero & Partners and EBIC Secretariat, told New AG International what we can expect: “In reality, we are likely to see a rolling start, with many products currently on the market under rules gradually switched over to the EU-wide market.” More coverage will follow in New AG International on this development.
So, what is in store for 2022? Here, we pick up on some themes from 2021 and combine with other industry analysis.
- High fertilizer prices drive combination products
My days as a fertilizer analyst stretch back to the price spike of 2008. I covered the downturn, which badly affected the European NPK blending industry, many of whom were left holding high-cost stock. What already seems to have happened is an increase in interest in combination products – such as an NPK with a component to increase the efficiency of nutrient uptake. If growers are finding it hard to obtain the nutrient inputs they need, they will be looking for products to help maximize the uptake. This could extend to biological inputs too, such as biostimulant seed dressings.
- Vertical farming to see continued investments
There were some large investments at the back end of 2021, and these are likely to continue into 2022. With supply chains stretched in 2021 – and a continuation of the tightness in the container market in the short term – the option for growing some crops closer to the area of consumption will seem attractive. This is bringing investment forward and was probably already in the cards.
- Emphasis on post-harvest treatments
Again, supply chain stresses from 2021 will bring into focus the need for good post-harvest treatments, particularly if supply chains face continued disruption or delays. Some of the players in the biological space already have products in this sector – particularly biofungicides. The driver of avoiding food waste could mean there are further investments in this area.
- Continued focus on scientific research in soil and microbiome
Much research is being done in this area already. In 2BMonthly – a joint venture publication between New AG International and DunhamTrimmer – we tried to quantify this in our October 2021 issue. The study of the microbiome was featured in eight percent of scientific research entries carried in the publication between 2019 and 2021. Sometimes this research was purely on the microbiome or the focus of a particular product or pest. As Professor Patrick Brown of UC Davis said in his closing remarks at the 5th Biostimulant World Congress: “There is a lot of activity around microbials, but around that is complexity.” The prediction here is that by 2023 and the 6th Biostimulants World Congress there may be some answers to that complexity (with the usual caveat that research often throws up even more questions!).
- More investment in biologicals to target specific pests of important crops
By way of example, in 2021, Biotalys was awarded a multi-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discover novel antifungal biocontrols for deployment to smallholder farmers. The project, identified as “Agrobodies for Crop Protection,” focuses on leveraging Biotalys’ Agrobody Foundry technology platform to discover novel protein-based biofungicides with the ability to control Cercospora canescens, the causative agent of leaf spot disease, a disease of cowpea and other legumes. (For more, see interview here in New AG International November/December 2021.)
By Luke Hutson, Editor-in-Chief
22 December 2021