Seaweed technology could be the answer to boosting crop yields at a time of declining chemical efficacy, with scientific breakthroughs revealing the multiple benefits of algae.
The Olmix Group, which has invested tens of millions of euros into algae research and innovation since 2012, recently hosted a visit to its Brittany-based laboratories and manufacturing site. Following the acquisition of UK-based Micromix – a firm specialising in foliar nutrition and biostimulants – it invited four agricultural journalists from the UK to learn more about the science behind the technology.
“A lot of seaweed is being simply processed and sold as a plant booster, but Olmix has a scientific understanding of what the molecules are actually doing,” says Chris Gamble, sales manager at Micromix. “Now we know the plant genomes we can see exactly what the different active ingredients are doing.”
Olmix harvests seaweed from the Breton coast once it has reached the end of its lifecycle – so it is a sustainable product. Given the high tidal reach of the area the seaweed is particularly strong, which is reflected in its biochemical make-up and stress tolerance.
When broken down into its components: Carbohydrates, proteins, sulphated polysaccharides and nutrients, the seaweed can then be used to boost crop and soil health, explains Didier Blin, plant care manager at Olmix. “Each has a different action on the plant, from growth stimulation to boosting the plant’s natural defence mechanisms against stress.”
Combined with micronutrients, inorganic acids, or clay, the products can be applied at different growth stages for maximum effect, says Maria Matard-Mann, research projects manager. “We are using seaweed as a complement to crop and soil health, not the only part of nutrition. That’s what makes the difference – having both a nutritional and biological activity.”
There are more than 9,800 species of seaweed, with a greater genetic diversity than fungi and animals combined. Many elements – such as sulphated polysaccharides – are not present in land plants, which is what makes them so useful, she adds.
“As crops don’t recognise marine sulphated polysaccharides they respond with immune aggression, which improves their resistance to stress or disease.” Algal hormones stimulate root growth and nutrient absorption, while biological activators boost humification in the soil.
“Farmers have to produce more and better with less, to feed the planet in a sustainable way,” says international director Jean-Marie Bocher. “We believe algae can be the answer.”
John Swire, editor of the Agronomist & Arable Farmer, reckons it’s essential that alternative approaches are explored given the lack of new chemical controls. “Reducing inputs has got to be the right thing,” he says. “We’re looking at the end of the chemical revolution in agriculture. The technology is fascinating and I really do believe there is a place for such innovative approaches to the growing of crops in the future.”
Lucy de la Pasture, technical editor at CPM, agrees. “Seaweed extracts have been around for a long time but their action is not well understood. The investment and R&D Olmix is pouring into harnessing the properties of marine algae is a reassuring injection of science into a field that has been a dark art.
“I firmly believe that understanding the complex interactions between a crop and its environment, together with supporting the plant’s own defence mechanisms, will provide the backbone for crop production in the future.”