Conventional agriculture provides for 95% of the worlds food production but is very resource intensive. The sector is overall reluctant to shift towards more resource-efficient practices due to limited reliability of current solutions. However, productivity growth is stagnating and in many areas declining, affected by pollution, declining soil quality and biodiversity loss. Todays agro-systems face multiple challenges: to be more productive to cope with rising food demand; to be more efficient to counter resource scarcity and climate change; and to deliver ecosystem services to preserve soils, water, air and human health.
Agro-systems also face particular threats related to water, phosphorus and fungicide efficiency. By 2030, water demand is expected to grow by 30% and half the worlds population will be living in areas with high water stress. Industrial agriculture is responsible for more than two-thirds of the worlds water withdrawal. The accumulation of nutrients such as phosphorus in effluents and soils often leads to soil contamination, eutrophication of surface waters and pollution of underground aquifers. On the supply side, explosive growth is expected in worldwide demand of phosphorus up to 2050 and geopolitical issues may accelerate the onset of a potential shortage to significantly less than 100 years. Fungicides heavily affect ecosystem functioning, harming soils enzymatic activity, soil organisms that help break down organic matter and act as natural control agents of many soil-borne pathogens, and aquatic fungi involved in leaf litter decomposition. Resistance to fungicides is increasing, so they are losing effectiveness. Moreover, research shows that tissues of 2-9% of edible plants have pesticide residues above the legal threshold.
The LIFE Plants for Plants project aimed to introduce new organic biostimulants into conventional agriculture. The goal was that biostimulants reliable performance will allow them to conquer a market segment that has so far been reluctant to reduce irrigation and chemical use to boost crop production. The project aimed to produce three prototypes of a new group of biostimulants focusing on water, phosphorus and fungicide efficiency, to tackle the related environmental threats. This new generation of plant-derived biostimulants, called standardised metabolites phytocomplex (SMP), would be able to enhance crop resource efficiency, significantly reducing the amount of nutrients, water and pesticides needed to grow, thus improving their resilience to climate change and disease.
Through this work, LIFE Plants for Plants aimed to contribute to implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, the Fertilisers Regulation, the thematic strategy for soil protection and the Pesticides Directive.
The project’s specific objectives were to:
- Develop an industrial process for production of SMP;
- Produce three new biostimulants at pilot scale and validate their performance on a variety of crops in open fields in different climatic conditions, including: - LL002 extract: improves resilience of plants to abiotic stress. It boosts water use efficiency, leading to water savings of about 30% in irrigated crops and to significant reduction of water deficiency symptoms and increased crop yield and quality in rain-fed crops in climatic zones with water deficiency. It also boosts nutrient use efficiency, especially of phosphorus; - LL004 extract: improves phosphorus use efficiency of annual arable crops and vegetables. It increases absorption capacity and hence reduces up to 30% of phosphorus applied at sowing/planting; and - LL017 extract: activates the primary and secondary metabolism leading to a strong enhancement of the crops comfort and thus its defence systems, called crop fortification efficacy. It reduces fungicide use by about 20-40%;
- Change the mindset of European conventional agricultural entrepreneurs towards the use of organic products to make their production more resource efficient and environmentally friendly with similar or increased yields, through Europe-wide demonstration and intensive dissemination; and
- Be ready for commercial launch at the end of project.
The LIFE Plants for Plants partners developed a pilot-scale industrial production line for organic biostimulants, and demonstrated the application of three new biostimulants (LL002, LL004 and LL017) on a variety of crops in open field trials under different climatic conditions. The project team gained EU-wide certification and commercially launched three products in 2022 (4-Good, 4-Vita, and 4-Terra). The biostimulants achieved significant environmental and socio-economic impacts: (i) increasing the climate resilience of crops; (ii) reducing the use of chemicals and water; (iii) increasing yields; and (iv) providing the coordinating beneficiary and biostimulant producer Van Iperen with a competitive advantage on world markets.
The project team conducted a total of 51 scientific trials, with 124 farmers involved in the application of the new biostimulants. Overall, 455 ha of land and 30 crops were treated in 17 European countries. Those trials/demonstrations led to reductions of 14,700 m³ of water for irrigation, 1,222 kg of phosphorus as fertiliser, and 7.5 kg of fungicides. These resource use reductions help to tackle three environmental threats related to agricultural practices: water scarcity, soil eutrophication, and soil vitality.
In terms of environmental impacts, the biostimulant products 4-Good and 4-Terra (both improving nutrient use efficiency) were shown to reduce CO2 emissions by 18%-24%, and reduce freshwater eutrophication by 24%-28%. Providing an increased yield and crop quality, the products may also reduce the pressure on land use and food waste.
In terms of the socio-economic impacts, the project contributes to the 20% reduction in fertiliser use by 2030 objective defined in the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. The biostimulants improve farmers’ income (e.g. through higher yields), while mitigating the increasing pressure on valuable resources and reducing energy demands (related to fertiliser production). The biostimulants can be used by both conventional and organic farmers, ensuring a sustainable food supply while generating sufficient profits from the sale of their agricultural produce.
The three biostimulant products (4-Good, 4-Vita, and 4-Terra) are certified as organic fertilisers and as biostimulants. They were introduced into the market in early 2022, and the commercial activities related to the three biostimulant products were expected to result in a total turn-over of €0.33 million in 2022 (for application on 3,300 ha), increasing to €8.75 million by 2026 (for application on 272,000 ha). Total cost price for growers for each of the biostimulants is expected to decrease from €130-160/ha to €50-75/ha in 2026. The current price is assessed as competitive for a series of high-value crops, such as tomatoes, melons, and grapes. The 2026 grower price would extend the application of the biostimulants to a wider range of crops, such as cereals, corn, potato, onion, and sugar beet.
Further tests and trials are required for defining the commercial path of LL017, for usage as a biocontrol against fungi (crop fortification) or as a biostimulant.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report (see "Read more" section).