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Feb 26, 2021

Conclusion of AgRIA research on Thallo fertiliser

Case study: Developing a multi-purpose waste reducing agricultural fertiliser

Elemental Digest Limited (‘Elemental’) is a Devon based innovative process technology company, incorporated in 2012 to create sustainable solutions for the circular economy. They provide the technology to enable food processors to capture more protein and fat per animal as well as to reduce their waste by converting processing by-products into an organo-mineral fertiliser. The protein and fat are sold as human food ingredients (stocks and fat), and the nutrient rich fertiliser is suitable for use in agriculture. Their food ingredients are marketed under the Pure Protein Foods brand to be used in ready meals, soups and sauces. Their organo-mineral fertiliser Thallo® is intended for use by farmers to improve crop yields and quality and was the focus of the company’s AgRIA project. As Elemental’s products are processed from what would otherwise be wasted, it was well aligned to AgRIA’s ‘sustainable products’ theme.

Rothamsted are an ideal collaborative partner for Elemental due to its wide range of R&D facilities, including controlled environment growing chambers and measuring equipment, as well as specialist academic expertise. Before the AgRIA project, Elemental had already worked with Rothamsted in developing their Thallo® fertiliser, determining the plant yield and nutrient density it can produce. Observations made during the earlier trials led to Elemental’s application for AgRIA funding to support a follow-on project. The team had noticed that insects seemed to be avoiding the Thallo® fertilised plants, suggesting potential pesticide properties. AgRIA allowed Elemental to conduct a short, specific research project to investigate this potentially environmentally and commercially significant observation.

An environmentally sustainable, waste-reducing fertiliser which also has natural immune-boosting properties in plants would help solve a huge global problem. According to Elemental’s chairman Michael Ash, 30% of annual crop yield is lost to pests, pathogens and weeds. Of the $45 billion spent globally on crop protection in 2016, 90% went to pesticides. But environmental and societal impacts are leading to an urge to find more sustainable ways to protect the world’s crops.

As Michael explains, “A fertilizer which confers an immunological resistance to your plants and at modest cost compared to using pesticides - and of course without environmental risk is an attractive proposition.” With such high commercial interest, the double application would be highly valuable. “We believe that will have a powerful add-on value to our product.”

AgRIA enabled Elemental to collaborate with a team of Rothamsted’s chemical ecologists, biogeochemists and specialist technicians to study the potential mechanisms behind their observation that insects appeared to avoid plants treated with Thallo®. They planted 24 trial plants, some fertilised with conventional fertiliser, some with Thallo®, and some entirely unfertilised, in Rothamsted’s environmentally controlled chambers. Some were infected with diamondback moth larvae – among the world’s most problematic and pesticide-resistant pests – whilst others remained uninfected. Rothamsted’s equipment was vital, with Sarah Foster, a specialist technician at Rothamsted, explaining that “the study was carried out using onsite resources including the glasshouses to grow plants, the insectary to rear diamondback moth larvae and gas-chromatography machines to analyse plant semiochemical collections.” The trial involved measuring the levels of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) expelled by the plants, as these can modify pest activity, as well as the activities of the moths.

  1. Ringed in Yellow is the Chinese cabbage fed Thallo®
  2. To the left is the conventional fertiliser, same ratio as Thallo® fertilised plant;
  3. To the right is the nonfertilized equivalent.

The project successfully demonstrated that the Thallo® treated plants emitted more VOCs, including the VOC myrcene which is known to modify the behaviour of Diamondback moths. They also found that Thallo® treated plants grew significantly larger than the conventionally fertilised plants. This evidence will hopefully make the product attractive to further grants, allowing for larger-scale trials on different plants, with different pests, and ultimately in full-sized fields to evaluate the effectiveness and yield gains in commercial use. Elemental is currently writing up their final report, which they hope to make accessible to the intended consumer – farmers, for whom the product could potentially have significant commercial and ecological benefits. Elemental has already made useful connections to specialists through their work with Rothamsted, which has allowed them to expand their research and product development possibilities. Once the AgRIA project findings have been finalised and circulated among the Rothamsted teams and partners, Elemental is planning to continue pushing the research forward. Michael feels that Thallo® could be a solution to significant global problems. “You have green credentials, circular economy, yield security, natural defence mechanisms, and essentially green immunisation – potentially providing ‘natural immunisation’ capacity to the plant to defend itself against pests.”

There was also a benefit for the academics involved. As Sarah said, “the study was useful in gaining experience with industry partners and hopefully forming a strong potential for future collaborations. Future work will hopefully be carried out on Thallo® fertiliser and its potential application as a pest management tool.

Read more about the AgRIA research here.