Cooperatives can unlock the development of sustainable business models for biofertiliser production

The need to manage livestock and agricultural waste, the impact of climate change on soils and weather conditions, together with the emergence of new market opportunities, represented by the growth of organic farming, are three essential components that will foster the use of biofertilisers by cooperatives: these are the main conclusions from the webinar on "Biofertilisers in the new Circular Economy" organised by the RUBIZMO partner Agro-food Cooperatives of Spain on 29 June 2020.

The webinar was held in the framework of the International Day of Cooperatives, taking place every year on the first Saturday of July, and focusing this year on the role of cooperatives in tackling climate change. As highlighted by Susana Rivera from Agro-food Cooperatives in her presentation, the most effective way to mitigate climate change in the agriculture sector is carbon sequestration. International initiatives such as the "4x1,000" even claim that this could be a way to offset all greenhouse gases emissions from the sector. For this objective to become a reality however, the major task would be to convert the numerous underutilised agricultural and livestock residues and by-products into quality organic fertilisers. When used by farmers, biofertilisers can improve the health of soils, and increase their fertility, while reducing the need to use mineral fertilisers. Cooperatives have a fundamental role in promoting the development and use of biofertilisers. In that sense, four examples of projects in which cooperatives have been key to support the development of joint entrepreneurial initiatives by farmers have been presented during the webinar. To foster the development and use of biofertilisers, cooperatives can play a key role in waste collection and management for instance, or enable joint investment in biodigestion or composting plants for bioferitliser production, thus generating new economic activity in the sector.

Sebastián Trinidad, Manager of Complus, a company created by cooperatives from different sectors, explained for instance how his company uses various by-products such as pruning, sheep manure, or olive pomace, to produce organic fertiliser through a composting process. Together with the Agro-food Cooperatives of Extremadura, Complus is participating in the Valorares operational group that works on the development of new composting techniques, allowing the recycling and recovery of by-products, and fostering sustainable soil management techniques in agriculture. As highlighted in Sebastián Trinidad' speech, organic fertiliser improves the structure of the soil and increases its ability to retain liquids.

Next, José Carlos Anguix, Compost Technician at Champinter, a mushroom cooperative that betting on the circular economy since the late 1980s, explained the processes used by the cooperative to remove depleted mushroom substrate and use it for soil amendment and fertilisation purposes. At Champinter, they prepare the substrate for mushroom cultivation from the composting of by-products such as straw, chicken manure or quarry plaster, and they also recover and use the water generated by composting to further increase the sustainability of the process. Next, the mixture goes through a sorter and is stored in a bunker, controlling oxygen and temperature, to achieve a selective substrate with specific conditions for mushroom cultivation.

The circular economy is also present in the livestock sector, and a good example there are all the actions carried out by Central Lechera Asturiana, who developed a dedicated sustainability plan to achieve zero emissions by compensating greenhouse gases emissions for the sector's farms, factories and transportation operators. As highlighted by its CEO, Francisco Sanmartín, Biogastur manages its partners' slurry with a capacity of 1,200 tons per day, generating methane to produce electricity and digestate, that is then used as fertiliser. The plant has an installed capacity of 4.5 megawatts, but they hope to expand its capacity and purify the methane obtained to convert it to biomethane.

Finally, Jan van der Blom, doctor entomologist from the Department of Production Techniques at Coexphal, presented the work carried out in the greenhouses of Almería to optimide irrigation and fertilisation, using digital sensors and applications. 15% of their greenhouses - almost 4,000 hectares - are certified as organic farming, and must use organic fertilisers, pushing the organisation to promote further development in the sector.

The webinar ended with a panel discussion moderated by Adolfo Peña, Deputy Director of Students and Business Projection at ETSIAM, Higher Technical School of Agricultural and Forestry Engineers of the University of Córdoba, during which the speakers had the opportunity to answer some of the questions from the audience of over 80 attendees. The speakers concluded that cooperatives must promote and raise awareness among their members and create plants for waste treatment because, although they may have their origin in solving an existing problem, in the short term, biofertilisers could represent an additional business opportunity that they should not miss.

For more information, you can watch the full webinar below, or have a look at original article in Spanish to find the presentations.