Specialty fertilizer market in Brazil: The opportunity of a lifetime
By Leonardo Gottems
Specialty fertilizers are products that present in their formulation some additional characteristic that differentiates them from conventional fertilizers, promoting better performance, stability, efficiency or ease of handling. They cover a class of seed treatments, foliar nutrition products, biofertilizers and improved efficiency fertilizers.
These products fell into the taste of Brazilian agriculture and show a strong growth trend in the main crops, such as soy, corn, coffee, cotton, beans and sugarcane, as well as in minor crops. Due to the results obtained with its use, sales of specialty fertilizers have been growing year after year. According to the entity that represents the sector, Abisolo (Brazilian Association of Technology in Vegetable Nutrition), BRL 10.1 billion in specialty fertilizers were sold in 2020, an increase of 41.8 percent over the previous year. For 2021, the estimated growth is 30 percent.
According to Ithamar Prada, vice president of marketing and innovation at ICL, even with strong inflation in raw material costs, Brazilian producers invested heavily in the use of technology in fertilizers and special nutrition. In an exclusive interview with New AG International, he states that the objective is to “maximize productivity and profitability to also take advantage of the good value of agricultural commodities.”
“The geopolitical instability that we are experiencing in a large region that produces raw materials for the fertilizer industry affects the availability of products and production costs,” notes Prada. “The moment brings challenges to the entire chain. Regardless of the situation in 2022, seeking to increase nutrient efficiency is something that should be seen as a permanent strategy, not only due to the aspects of business profitability and availability of raw materials, but also due to the increasing need to fulfill an environmental agenda, sustainable, positive.”
What do producers look for?
According to Prada, Brazilian producers seek performance, economic returns and products that are supported by research. “We can mention improved efficiency fertilizers, foliar nutrition and biostimulants as products well assimilated by the market,” he says.
On the other hand, the products that still have a field to grow in this market are those that promote an increase in the efficiency of nutrient use. Prada maintains this is one of the “most important agendas of the special nutrition sector, which develops products seeking to increase performance in a way that the producer maximizes his crops with the use of nutrients in the right place, source and time,” but “combining aspects of sustainability.”
“The development of technologies in plant nutrition aims to increase the efficiency of nutrients, reducing losses in the soil-plant-atmosphere system,” he says. “An example is the use of controlled-release fertilizers, which significantly reduce losses in the process, generating increased productivity, and environmental and operational gains, due to the lower need for fertilizer installments. For seed and foliar nutrition, the understanding is the development of source-based products that enhance the bioavailability of nutrients.”
Prada notes it is difficult to point out the major nutritional deficiencies in the main Brazilian agricultural regions because Brazil is a country of continental dimensions, with a wide range of soil types, as well as a diversity of agricultural management combinations. However, he highlights in micronutrients the “deficiency of boron to a large extent, but with several areas with deficiency of zinc, copper and manganese.”
“As for secondary macronutrients, it is common to find areas deficient in sulphur and magnesium. Not only the factors linked to soil fertility but also the increase in productivity and the cultivation of more than one crop per year increase the need for nutrients in general, due to the greater consumption to support the increase in production in the same area,” he adds.
Markets and companies
Characterizing the companies operating in this segment in Brazil, Prada says the “work of the academic community, consultants and the companies themselves in the development of field research has driven the adoption of technologies.” For their part, producers who already use more conventional products are also the “first to adopt special fertilizers. With the results presented in the field, other farmers end up adopting them next.”
“Domestic production is important for the segment, allowing proximity, competitiveness and the development of solutions focused on the reality of the local producer,” he says. “It is worth mentioning that, even when we talk about national production, we have to consider the need for some minerals and other raw materials imported along the chain. Therefore, even with national production, we are in a dynamic market impacted by exchange rate variations, availability and other global issues. The Brazilian producer buys from companies that provide him with security. In this sense, being positioned as a complete company, with development, production, administration and sales locally is an important factor.”
Finally, when asked whether there will be a mass migration from conventional fertilizers to specialty ones, Prada points out a clear trend. “Higher technology producers are the first to adopt specialty fertilizers. With the results presented in the field, other farmers end up adopting them.
“We understand that the work of the academic community, consultants, and companies themselves in the development of field research has driven the adoption of these technologies,” says Prada. “It is difficult to point to mass migration, but certainly, there is a continuous trend of substitution, due to the need for increased performance associated with sustainability. We see this movement as a trend that is independent of global crises.”
Bioinoculants – ascending stars
Bioinoculants, called simply inoculants, are products that contain micro-organisms that act in some way in the development of plants. They can act alone or together, in the availability of nutrients, in the production of hormones, increase in the root system or other mechanisms that promote an increase in the development of plants.
According to Solon Cordeiro de Araujo, managing partner of SCA Consulting and Training, the products most widely used in Brazil today are inoculants based on the bacterium Bradyrhizobium, a nitrogen fixer that transforms nitrogen from the air into a form usable by plants. In second place are inoculants based on the Azospirillum bacterium, which works both as a moderate nitrogen fixer, but mainly as a producer of hormones for the plant, with products registered for corn, wheat, rice and Brachiaria. It is also used together with Bradyrhizobium and Rhizobium in the co-inoculation of soybeans and beans, respectively.
“Recently, three more types of inoculants are assuming a significant position in the market: inoculants based on bacteria of the Bacillus genus for phosphorus solubilization, micro-organisms to increase tolerance to water stress, and mycorrhizae,” says Cordeiro de Araujo.
The potential market size for inoculants is equivalent to the Brazilian area of soybeans, corn and beans in Brazil, says Cordeiro de Araujo. “Add to this the area of pastures, inoculation with Azospirillum, and we have the immense dimension of the potential market. Adding up all the products, we have more than 100 million doses of inoculants being used in the country.”
On the other hand, he says, there are two major challenges: the first is the recurrent attempt to put nitrogen fertilizer on soybeans and beans. “Research data show that this practice is totally useless, except in very exceptional cases. But there are still people who insist on spreading this wrong practice,” he maintains.
“The second point is the dissemination of the practice of on-farm inoculant production. Inoculants are biological products of high complexity in their production system and require specific equipment, maintenance of sterile conditions and highly qualified personnel in microbiology. There have been many situations in which the farmer is deceived by the promise of the ease of producing inoculants without the minimum microbiological conditions.”
According to Cordeiro de Araujo, Brazilian producers have adhered very strongly to the use of inoculants, with more than 80 percent of soybean producers using these products annually. However, he points out there is plenty of room for new generations of inoculants produced using modern molecular biology techniques, making the products even more effective. There is also plenty of room for mycorrhizal inoculants, recently introduced in the country, but still imported.
Speaking of the companies that operate in this segment in Brazil, Cordeiro de Araujo highlights that the national production of these special inputs has extensive experience and a good industrial park, both quantitatively and qualitatively. “Imports exist, which is good for the competition that must exist, but national companies are capable of serving the Brazilian market. There is no discrimination in this regard. It depends on trust in the brand and commercial conditions,” he notes.
Cordeiro de Araujo analyzes the moment of the specialty fertilizers market in Brazil as “highly favourable” because the search for more sustainable inputs, compatible with the environment, as well as the increase in prices of traditional fertilizers, makes it necessary to seek alternatives to maintain productivity levels with lower costs and less dependence on imported products.
The consultant also sees on the horizon a “total replacement of traditional fertilizers by biological ones,” but gradually. “It will always be necessary to provide soils with the chemical elements needed to nourish plants (phosphorus and potassium in particular). The biological ones make the recycling of these elements in the soil, making them more available to the plants, therefore, they increase the efficiency and allow a reduction in the application of conventional fertilizers, but they do not completely replace them, except in the case of nitrogen fixers, since this element is present in abundance in the atmosphere,” he explains.
“A strong increase in the use of biological products in agriculture is expected this year, due to the global movement towards greater use of sustainable inputs and in view of the situation of fertilizer prices. For the medium term, the same is expected: a continuous and significant increase in the use of biological products and other specialty product lines,” Cordeiro de Araujo concludes.