Algae-based fertiliser turns vegetable farming green

[EU] There is a growing demand for ‘green’ vegetables but farmers are reluctant to change to these revenue-generating practices. Researchers have made it easier for farmers to get their products labelled as green through sustainable, easy-to-adopt technology.

Regulations and consumer needs have expanded the market for food products labelled green. However, affordable technological tools to produce vegetables sustainably are not readily available. To compound the challenge, European vegetable suppliers have neither the knowledge nor the willingness to change their cultivation methods.

The EU-funded VegaAlga (Sustainable agricultural eco-system: business and technological solution for eco-conscious vegetable cultivation using on-site produced algae fertilizer) initiative set out to establish a sustainable agricultural ecosystem using microalgae-based fertiliser. The VegaAlga team worked with the Vegetable Trading Centre – regional market leaders in vegetable production, and Multisense – a technology-intensive start-up, to create the new ecosystem.

Project leader, Mr Zoltán Basa, says the innovation process was divided into two important parts. The first was to improve and finalise an algae production system so that the algae can be cultivated securely. The second part was to successfully show that the algae treatment on the soil works. “In the first part, we selected the open pond production system and it was definitely the most crucial factor,” Professor Basa explains.

The team tested two different-sized ponds, 12m3 and 25m3, and installed all the ponds in a greenhouse to better control the physical parameters. They developed and used a special paddle wheel for a continuous production cycle and to prevent sedimentation.

The researchers next developed the VegaAlga system in which they grew the algae in raceway ponds with optimal conditions to maximise the growth rate. The team created their own control system that they used to monitor the status of every pond, called “Pond Master”. They used the system to monitor parameters such as pH, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and oxidation reduction potential.

The project was not without its challenges, however, as Professor Basa explains. “The team faced issues with the size and the material of the ponds, which they needed to get correct to avoid infections that would hinder production.” They initially found it difficult to find partners to work with; Mr Basa found that SME companies seldom work with innovative partners outside their comfort zone.

VegaAlga developed microalgae-based fertiliser that was positively received by farmers that tested the product. Farmers completed a questionnaire where the majority (15 of 17 farmers) said the algae fertilisers were more effective than inorganic products in the market.

The new product has generated a significant amount of interest: consumers and industry professionals bombarded the commercial partner with questions.

A Customer Development Plan was created to commercialise their technology to produce microalgae sustainably, and in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly manner. The team also developed a smaller microalgae-fertiliser production system to allow farmers to produce fertiliser on their own land in a cost-effective and eco-friendly way. This would allow farmers to label their products as “green” and sustainable, which comes with a significant revenue boost.

Looking forward, Mr Basa says the VegaAlga team will look for distributors of the product, as they have already started to build up a sales team. The project already has orders not only in the field of agriculture, and they plan to focus on other potential business opportunities.

The VegaAlga open pond system was selected by the Budapest Savage Works Ltd. for innovation support for the company from 2018. “In the beginning we definitely want to obtain experience from support and maintenance coming from onsite ponds installed in Hungary, Austria and Romania,” Mr Basa says. “After that we will expand into other markets as well.”

 

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