Photograph by Dado Galdieri for The Wall Street Journal.
WALL STREET JOURNAL - BRAZLÂNDIA, Brazil—Brazil is rushing to roll out high-tech alternatives to fertilizer to boost farm production because of global price surges exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Drones fitted with cameras hover over centuries-old farms, allowing farmers to use fertilizer only where it is really needed, while nearby laboratories use the same lasers employed by NASA on Mars to perform soil analysis in seconds. Special white gels hold nutrients in place near plant roots with minute precision, preventing waste, and scientists at Brazil’s state research agency, Embrapa, are helping the poorest farmers to transform their own feces into fertilizer using microbes from cow intestines.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Brazil had been testing a variety of high-tech solutions to boost productivity and reduce the country’s chronic dependence on imported fertilizers. With global supplies now scant, these solutions are attracting avid interest, both inside and outside Brazil.
“All the major agribusiness multinationals are now coming into Brazil because of the innovation they see taking place,” said Bob Morris, an American agronomist and president of AndMore Associates, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
The technologies being developed in Brazil have the potential “to significantly impact fertilizer efficiency globally,” he added.
Last month, U.S.-based The Mosaic Company, one of the world’s largest producers of potash and phosphate fertilizer, invested in Gênica, a firm from São Paulo that uses microbes to boost plant growth, calling the deal a way to “accelerate the process of guaranteeing food security.” Yara International ASA, a Norwegian chemical company, recently signed a partnership with Drop Agricultura, a Brazilian company developing an alternative to nitrogen. In March, Yamaha Motor Co. invested in Arpac, a Brazilian provider of agricultural-drone technology.
Brazil, which produces 10% of the world’s food, drew $1.3 billion in agricultural-technology investment last year, ranking sixth in the world, according to AgFunder, an investment and research firm.
Here in this dusty savanna, Carime Rodrigues’s father wasn’t impressed when she told him she had no intention of roughing it on the family farm and was off to study chemistry at college instead.
Teaming up with her professor, Ms. Rodrigues spent the following years inside a lab developing nanoparticles—particles so small they are seemingly invisible—to speed up photosynthesis and nutrient absorption, allowing farmers to boost production without the need for extra fertilizer.
“They thought we were crazy,” Ms. Rodrigues, 26 years old, said of her family.
Now, the nanoparticle liquid, called Arboline, is rapidly gaining traction across farms and investor boardrooms.
Barreling down a bumpy, dirt road to reach his 257-acre farm, a five-hour-drive south of Brazlândia in Caldas Novas, Bento de Godoy Neto, 37, explained how he had heard about Arboline in 2020 but only bought it as fertilizer prices soared this year.
“If it does what it is said to do—if we increase productivity by 30%—and if we can reduce the amount of fertilizer just by 10% to 15%, then Brazil’s dependence on the rest of the world will decrease,” he said. Brazil usually imports some 85% of its fertilizers, about a fifth of which normally comes from Russia.
The brainchild of University of Brasília professor Marcelo Oliveira Rodrigues and developed in partnership with Embrapa, Arboline hit the market in 2021 and has been spread across about 150,000 acres of Brazilian farmland—equivalent to 10 Manhattans.
Krilltech, the firm that Mr. Rodrigues co-founded to produce Arboline, said that until this year most farmers used the product to boost production while applying their usual amounts of fertilizer. Company data so far showed that production rose by 21% for soy crops and as much as 50% for some vegetables.
But the product may also help farmers maintain production while reducing fertilizer. Embrapa, the state research agency, said its preliminary data showed that Arboline allowed production to remain steady with 10% to 30% less fertilizer. Experts said more data is needed.
Brazilian tech firms working to cut fertilizer use have already teamed up with companies in the U.S., the U.K. and Norway, and the U.S. Forest Service has said it will test Arboline for reforestation projects in California trials later this year.
Milt McGiffen, a professor of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside, said he plans to test the product over the next few months and, if effective, introduce it to avocado and citrus farms in California next year. There will also likely be demand in the Midwest, he said. Farmers there are under longstanding pressure to cut their use of fertilizer to reduce runoff into the Mississippi River and from there the Gulf of Mexico.
“If you can reduce the use of fertilizer for them, that would be a big deal,” said Prof. McGiffen.
In the U.S., companies such as Pivot Bio, Kula Bio and Anuvia have found some success among farmers and investors over recent months by harnessing microbes to replace traditional fertilizers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also researching nanotechnology to cut fertilizer waste, while the India Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd. has developed Nano Urea Liquid, a nitrogen substitute developed with nanoparticles.
About 500 miles south of Brazlândia, at an Embrapa experimental farm in São Paulo’s farming belt, researchers hope the global fertilizer crisis will push more producers toward technology, accelerating the modernization of Brazil’s farms.
In three giant greenhouses, Adriel Bortolin, a 34-year-old chemist, has been carrying out final tests on Fertgel, a product he developed with Embrapa that will go on sale later this year. Using nanotechnology, he created a hydrogel similar to that used in diapers, but even more absorbent. Every gram can retain at least a cup of water, which Fergel slowly releases around a plant’s roots, allowing crops to prosper during droughts.
A tailor-made recipe of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can also be added to the gel, keeping nutrients close to the roots. Conventional fertilizers are often lost when they seep too far into the ground. Tropical climates only add to the problem, with heavy rains that can wash away fertilizer and intense heat that can cause urea fertilizer to quickly evaporate as ammonia gas.
Other solutions are more rudimentary, Embrapa researcher Wilson Lopes da Silva explained, brandishing a bottle of yellow liquid—a “biofertilizer” that underground tanks connected to the Embrapa site’s sewage system produce from staff members’ waste, with the help of microorganisms derived from cow feces.
“There was some prejudice at first,” said Mr. Lopes da Silva.
Embrapa has been testing it on 12 miniature plots of corn a few hundred yards away. Mr. Lopes da Silva said he hopes the data will encourage more small family farms to adopt the system—a cheap way to boost production while improving sewage management and reducing disease.
Created by Brazil’s government in 1973 to ensure food security, Embrapa now works at arm’s length from politicians in Brasília, encouraging its researchers to set up their own startups and working in partnership with private-sector companies.
Beside the greenhouses, giant orange robotic tractors built by the Brazilian company Jacto and drones fitted with wings created by 3-D printers help producers farm with more precision. These machines capture detailed images of crops, helping farmers to decide where best to apply fertilizer.
From her home in São Paulo state, Tamires Casagrande, 26, uses a platform created by Brazilian company InCeres to track her father’s farm in Mato Grosso do Sul, a nine-hour drive away. An agronomist and one of the first in her family to attend university, she has been analyzing satellite images of the crops for three years, using them to generate precise guidance for applying fertilizer. It soon became clear that some of the land could produce well with less, leaving more available for struggling areas.
Like nanoparticle maker Ms. Rodrigues, Ms. Casagrande said she faced initial skepticism. One of the oldest farmworkers worried that crops would suffer in areas where she had instructed them to use less fertilizer. “But then he saw the results,” she said.
With fertilizer prices soaring, more farmers have been asking for her consultancy services over recent months, she said.
In Brazlândia, Ms. Rodrigues’s father, Ozair Rodrigues, now thinks that his daughter and Krilltech may be onto something. “She’s doing important work,” he said.