A new technology will enable all of the world's crops to take nitrogen directly from the air, rather than expensive and environmentally damaging fertilizers.Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. But only a very small number of plants, most notably legumes such as peas, beans and lentils, have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere with the help of nitrogen fixing bacteria. The vast majority of other plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer - a costly and environmentally detrimental method.

At Biocity in Nottingham, the UK's largest bioscience incubator, Azotic Technologies have developed a way of dramatically reducing this by developing a technology which allows a plant to increase its intake of nitrogen from the atmosphere, reducing the amount of harmful nitrogen fertiliser to be scattered over fields. Seeds are sprayed with a liquid containing a bacteria, found naturally in sugar cane, before being planted, causing yhe cells inside the plant naturally fix their own nitrogen.

I caught up with Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic Technologies, to hear more ahead of his presentation at the Future of Food Summit in June.

What was the motivation behind founding Azotic Technologies?
   The four directors have all been involved with agricultural companies and are aware of the need to increase food production in a sustainable way.  Nitrogen is central to increasing plant yields to feed the world’s growing population, however fertiliser  technology  has  remained  much  the  same  for  the  last  50  years.   There is a growing emphasis on nitrogen pollution control which results from excessive fertiliser application in agriculture.  Nitrogen leached into the atmosphere and waterways can have serious detrimental environmental effects.

Professor Edward Cocking FRS, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, developed a unique method to put nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots.  We felt that this technology could make a real difference to agriculture and also reduce nitrogen pollution consequently Azotic Technologies agreed to further develop and commercialise this new technology.  The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.

What do you feel has been essential to the success of Azotic Technologies so far?
   In addition to the investment required to sustain a pre-revenue company,  Azotic Technologies has sound foundations which will deliver value to all stakeholders:
  •                A clear market need
•                A ground breaking enabling technology
•                A clear commercialisation strategy
•                An experienced management team

Azotic Technologies has negotiated an exclusive global licence for all crop species and has drawn together an experienced management team, with very strong business know how, to commercialise this much needed ground-breaking British technology.  N-Fix® technology is unique to Azotic.  It is patent protected, providing proof of concept and enabling commercial development.

Our technology offers a significant cost benefit to the grower through reduced fertiliser costs.

How can the technology and ethos behind Azotic Technologies be applied in other areas?
   There is a substantial global market for such a technology on all crops. The impact that N-Fix® will have on grower income and the environment is significant, reducing input costs for the grower and reducing the environmental damage caused by nitrogen fertilisers.

Azotic’s N-Fix technology will offer products that operate in two significant and growing markets. These two markets are those of biofertilisers and seed treatment.

The growing emphasis on sustainability and biological solutions in agriculture has led to a significant growth in the use of biofertilisers globally.

The global seed treatment market has grown exponentially in the last few years and growth is expected to continue. Factors such as expensive seeds, ease of application, innovative production practices, new product offerings, increased availability, and the advent of new pests are increasing the market for seed treatments globally.  Our nitrogen fixing technology is ideal additive for crop seeds.

What do you see in the future for Azotic Technologies?
   Nitrogen fixation has been established in a range of crops work in the laboratory and through field trials. Our focus crops are: grass, wheat, barley, canola, corn and rice.

We have now completed our fourth season of successful field trials which have taken place in the UK, Europe and the USA.  Our trials on grass, wheat, maize and canola have so far shown a 50% saving in nitrogen fertiliser application. We are now carrying out our fifth season of field trials.  We have a full programme of independent field trials taking place in 2016 covering Europe and North America.

This will allow for significant cost savings in the real world, whilst also achieving significant environmental benefits.

We are working on developing new IP and striving for continuous product improvement.

What new developments in AgTech and FoodTech can we expect to see in the next 5 years?
   Agriculture has to change and there will be a greater emphasis on the use of biologicals in farming.  Our N-Fix technology is a disruptive technology and will take time to capture market share.

Seed treatment technology is still evolving.  One of the key issues will be providing resistance against both biotic and abiotic stresses. Complete solutions will consist of chemical and biological seed treatments in a combination.

Seed treatment in terms of protection from abiotic stress may result in enhanced:
•                Seed vitality
•                Stress tolerance
•                Nutrients uptake

What do you feel are the most urgent challenges within the food industry?
   Forecasts expect the world population to reach 9 billion by 2050.  There is a need to feed a continually growing global population.  There is a critical necessity for the sustainable intensifi cation of global agriculture in which yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land.

In order to increase the food supply agriculture must adopt more efficient farming practices, use technologies and nutrients which enhance yields and reduce soil degradation as well as sustaining the environment.

The availability of water and good soils are major limiting factors in crop farming.  Soil degradation and the negative impact it has on growing crops is a major issue for global agriculture with 33% of the world’s soils currently degraded, according to the FAO.

How can those problems be solved with technology?
   Our natural nitrogen fixing technology will help farmers become more efficient by reducing the over application of nitrogen fertilisers.  This will also help with the soil degradation issue as synthetic fertiliser use is a major cause of soil degradation.  In addition to nitrogen fertiliser substitution our technology will also improve crop yields.

Our N-Fix technology provides clear differentiation from other inoculant technologies and products in the market:
•                It is environmentally friendly and contains no toxins
•                It applies to all crops
•                It provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix its own nitrogen
•                It provides up to 50% of the plant’s nitrogen needs

What are the top three things you would like to see change or be invented in the food industry?
   Water is a major issue in agriculture.  It would be good to have a technology that saves water as well enabling the more efficient use of water.     The pressure is on farmers to deliver greater yields from existing farmland and protect their crops from biotic and abiotic stresses in a sustainable way.  Biological crop nutrients that improve nutrient uptake and unlocking yield potential would help address this issue.     Soil enhancement is an area which requires a positive improvement.  Good farming soil is essential if farmers are to maintain or increase yields.  New developments are needed to achieve beneficial soil enhancement.

Peter Blezard will be speaking at the RE•WORK Future of Food Summit in London on 21 June 2016. Other speakers include Florian Pinel, Lead Engineer, IBM Chef Watson; Abi Glencross, PhD in Cellular Agriculture, King's College London; Nick Holzherr, Founder & CEO of Whisk.com; Richard Ballard, Co-Founder of Growing Underground; Ian Hales, Research Associate, Bristol Robotics Lab, and more.

Early Bird tickets are available until Friday 29 April, for more information visit the event page here. Our previous foodtech event sold out, so book early to avoid disappointment!