Same quality and yield of the harvest with less fertilizer, even during periods of drought. With the product Aphasol, a biostimulant developed by the East Flemish company Stam Agro in collaboration with Ghent University, it is not fiction, but reality. And as the icing on the cake, this biostimulant is being developed on the basis of chicken feathers, a residual flow that is traditionally considered a problem but is actually packed with proteins.
Stronger plants, less fertilizer, lower CO2emissions
“A biostimulant is a product of natural origin that makes plants grow better and stronger,” explains Kris Audenaert, professor of plants and crops at Ghent University. “It is very typical that you can use them in low concentrations, but still have a great effect. They ensure that the plants can better absorb nutrients, become more resistant and thus better defend themselves against extreme weather conditions such as drought or prolonged heat. ‘ Not a luxury in times of climate change.
»Our region is known for its large vegetable and potato processing companies, because here we achieve high yields per hectare. If the climate were to change fundamentally, it would be more challenging to realize the great benefits. Large-scale experiments with first versions of the Stam Agro product showed that by applying this biostimulant with 70% of the conventional nitrogen fertilizer, we can generate similar yields as with 100% fertilizer, «says Vaast Vanoverschelde, founder of Stam Agro, enthusiastically. With increasingly stringent standards for nitrogen emissions and the use of fertilizers, biostimulants can help realize the ambitions of both Flemish and European politicians. At both levels, emphasis has been placed on more sustainable crops and less use of fertilizer.
“A biostimulant is a product of natural origin that makes plants grow better and stronger” – Prof. Kris Audenaert
At the same time, the policy is strongly committed to valorising residual flows for new applications. “The amazing thing is that the source of this biostimulant – chicken feathers, which are traditionally considered residual waste – is available here in large quantities,” says Vanoverschelde. ‘With the amount of chicken feathers, we can “treat” the current potato area in Belgium several times. We end the circle by also studying the residues from these processes and finding relevant uses for them, for example in animal feed. ‘
To complete the story, this biostimulant creates a huge CO2-reduction. Its application to Belgium’s total potato crop could potentially reduce 55,493 tonnes of CO2 can mean about the year. This corresponds to the annual CO2emissions from 22,743 cars.
From chicken feathers to biostimulants
‘As a company, we focus on valorising residual flows from the poultry sector. Growing a chicken costs a lot of money. It would be a shame to throw away all those investments with the chicken feathers, because chicken feathers are full of proteins, «argues Vaast Vanoverschelde from Stam Agro. ‘You just have to find a way to do something meaningful with it, because an average organism can’t digest it.’
Stam Agro has developed a method for splitting the protein chains into chicken feathers. For example, the company has already made various applications, including for the aquaculture sector, where they use the proteins instead of fishmeal to breed fish, but also in dog and cat food. Vaast Vanoverschelde: ‘We quickly saw that during that process free, soluble proteins are also formed, which we can use as biostimulants.’
“A first physical-thermal pre-treatment of the sources takes place at Stam Agro,” explains Katleen Raes, professor of food technology at Ghent University. “It ensures that the chicken feathers are largely broken down into the free amino acids needed to develop the biostimulant. The main disadvantage is that an undesirable transformation occurs during this process: the amino acids, which can usually be easily absorbed by plants, can be absorbed much less efficiently by the crops. Our role is to solve that problem through a more gentle process using enzymes. ‘
“But we are also taking a closer look at the effect of the biostimulant,” says Professor Audenaert. ‘To better understand this, we study the growth of plants in a non-destructive way. We irradiate them with a very wide range of wavelengths, so we indirectly know what happens chemically in those plants: they absorb nutrients better, they grow more efficiently, etc. In this way you can see if the biostimulant works or not. And if so, when does it work best – does it benefit the plant primarily at a young or later stage? It is very important for later agricultural uses. ‘
Towards a biostimulant 2.0
What started as a small test project in small kitchen gardens grew into an interdisciplinary collaboration between Stam Agro and Ghent University. “There were already contacts with Ghent University to test the first versions of the product,” explains Vaast Vanoverschelde. “But over time, trust between the two parties has also grown. And the fact that we could draw on the expertise of different research groups meant that together we could roll out a complete path, from strengthening and purifying the current biostimulant to better understanding how it works. I do not think other research institutes can offer such broad expertise.
UGent’s business developers Maaike Perneel and Nathan De Geyter brought together the research groups of Professors Erik Meers, Katleen Raes, Geert Haesaert and Kris Audenaert to further study the various aspects of the problem. As business developers of the Industrial Research Foundation (IOF), they guide research groups in collaboration with companies and help organizations raise funds for further research. “The grant we received from the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) is definitely accelerating research and product development,” says Vanoverschelde. ‘This allows us to make a big difference in a relatively short amount of time. The goal is to bring an improved version of the current product, Aphasol 2.0, to the market by 2024. And due to the smooth collaboration with Ghent University and the promising results of the first tests, we are even looking at developing the technology together in a spin -off focusing on the production of biotsimulants based on chicken feathers. ‘