As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Viewing fertilisers differently
by Arable Farming July 2020
Taking a plant-centred scientific approach to fertiliser development has been key for one UK company leader as he develops markets around the world.
Work done to develop products which can tackle plant stress in countries typically drier than the UK is attracting increasing interest in the home market this season in what has been an exceptionally dry spring.
Understanding how plants can use nutrients more efficiently and alleviating plant stress are the key goals of David Marks, MD of Levity Crop Science, Preston, Lancashire. An award-winning scientist and experienced agronomist, Mr Marks’ interest in plants began at a young age.
“I don’t have a farming background. I grew up in Birmingham and used to love growing plants in the garden. At Liverpool John Moores University I studied applied biology and got more interested in plants and crop science.”
Beginning his career at Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association, a Government-funded research station, Mr Marks soon realised he was looking for something more dynamic. He worked for US fertiliser company Stoller’s UK division and ended up ‘running the place’ before launching a start-up working on ways to make fertilisers more biologically active. Then he floated it on the stock market and the business is now owned by Croda.
A decade ago he set up Levity Crop Science with his partner Anna Weston, also a crop scientist.
He says: “We wanted to take the idea a step further, looking at how plants use the food we feed them and how we can use fewer inputs.
“Fertilisers have mainly been developed by chemists. I am a biologist; I’m interested in what plants do, how they move nutrients around, how they grow more in the right or the wrong place.
“It has been a long, hard slog, but we are doing quite well now. The first five years were research and development. In the last five years we have developed markets for our products. I am autistic, which has advantages as I can look at things from a different view.”
Lono is the company’s biggest selling product. Holding nitrogen in the amine form, it focuses the plant on reproductive growth – flowers, fruit, roots and tubers – rather than vegetative growth stimulated by conventional N fertilisers.
With solutions to plant stress the other key area for the company, Mr Marks says: “Stress is the largest market in the world that does not exist yet. Plants are under a huge amount of stress. Pests and diseases account for 20% of global crop losses. The other 80% of losses are mostly down to the weather.”
Indra, another technology developed by the company, improves growth and quality of crops by helping them cope with stress caused by heat, cold, salinity, drought and high UV light.
Stress causes crops to produce toxins (ROS) that damage cells and reduce quality. The product promotes the plant’s own antioxidant production and supplies the nutrients needed to make their manufacture possible, explains Mr Marks. Such technology has been particularly successful in more arid regions.
“The US is our biggest market and has been for three years. New Zealand is going very well, and South Africa, Egypt and Jordan.”
Mr Marks cites many other countries and says South America is the next big push.
“Stress is a universal problem. Farmers know the climate is changing. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, it is not as reliable as it once was.”
While the UK has been one of Levity’s smallest markets, there is growing interest from the cereals sector as well as potato growers.
“It is nice to see products we have developed used in home production.”
Mr Marks undertakes considerable travel and spent six weeks in the US in January and February with farmers and distributors.
“If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t be selling so much there,” he says.
He returned from a trip to South Africa for an avocado symposium two days before lockdown.
“There will be a lot of catching up to do on travel when we get back to normal. We are helping customers get used to doing things over the internet a bit more.”