There’s a paradox at play in the agricultural industry. As it grapples with its greatest question – how to ensure food security amid a worsening climate crisis – the natural tendency is to do whatever is possible to increase crop yields.
Yet in striving to maximize every parcel of agricultural land, the industry is in fact contributing to the crisis. Research suggests that without nitrogenous fertilizers, produced from sequestered nitrogen, it would not be possible to feed 50 percent of the current global population.
“People are overdosing with fertilizers – these conservative fertilizing methods in use around the world are pollutive,” Haifa Group CEO Motti Levin tells The CEO Magazine.
This practice of excess fertilization has a serious environmental impact, changing the soil composition and triggering seepage and contamination of groundwater and the release of greenhouse gases.
It might be the biggest challenge the leaders of the sector are facing, but fortunately, Levin already has a solution to hand.
“We have to adopt precision agriculture methods,” he suggests.
As the name suggests, precision agriculture is the practice of fertilizing crops through their roots or leaves, rather than by enriching the soil. The latter is what happens when fertilizer is applied over broad areas and there is significant runoff. Both methods boost yields, but the advantage of precision agriculture is optimization and reduced pollution.
Special fertilizers allow farmers to use less fertilizer, water, labor and other inputs, while still achieving higher yields through a process known as nutrient use efficiency (NUE). NUE refers to how effectively the plant uses nutrients in an optimizing way for its growth, development and overall functioning.
“Special fertilizers that are delivered in a precise method are more efficient at delivering nutrients to plants, which reduces the amount of fertilizer that is lost to the air, soil and water,” he explains. “This helps to protect water quality and air quality, and it also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Within precision agriculture exists a method called fertigation, which is the application of precise quantities of water and fertilizer to the crop through irrigation systems.
“If we apply nitrogen to the root area together with the water, we’re improving yields,” he says. “We can add vitamins or use biostimulants to improve the crop’s shelf life or its ability to sustain tough conditions, while at the same time minimizing any damage.
“The benefits of smart fertilizers are twofold: they reduce costs for farmers and increase yields. They also help protect the environment.”
And as a specialty fertilizer manufacturer, Israel’s Haifa Group is paving the way in fertigation technology.
Setting the pace is nothing new for Haifa, which was founded in 1966 when it innovated a process to produce potassium nitrate from Israel’s few natural resources for agriculture applications.
“We practically invented the soluble fertilizer,” Levin explains.
By the end of the 1970s, the company’s advanced fertilizers had gained international attention, with the development of controlled-release fertilizers in the 1980s only reinforcing its reputation for innovation.
Committed to upholding the Global Compact initiative of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Haifa has long taken an open-source approach to innovation and knowledge sharing. As other companies enter the precision agriculture and fertigation markets, Levin welcomes the competition.
“It’s a very good sign,” he confirms. “Haifa is committed to planet health, thriving humanity and sustainable agriculture. The company believes that by helping farmers produce more food while reducing their environmental impact, it can make a positive impact on the world.”
Particularly because, despite the obvious advantages, there are still plenty of regions in the world yet to adopt such practices. In some cases, he explains, this is because of a lack of urgency from governments to promote the switch. In India, for example, drip irrigation systems are common, but only a small fraction of these (five percent) apply fertilizers together with irrigation.
Haifa can offer unique insights and experience with this problem, as Israel has faced similar struggles in the past.
“The world is facing the exact challenges that Israel faced 70 years ago,” he points out. “We’re a small country on the edge of the desert. There wasn’t enough land or water and there was a growing demand for food because there were waves of people coming to the young state from all over the world.”
It’s the reason that Israel has become such a center of innovation, he adds. And that’s why there’s so much hope in the country’s ability to lead the change in world agriculture.
The CEO Magazine first spoke to Levin in 2019 in his first year in the position. His appointment came a short time after municipal governments had shut down the company’s blue ammonia tank.
“We needed to practically rebuild ourselves,” he recalls.
The past few years have been typified by an intensive effort to recover what was lost during that time.
“We’re not just rebuilding ourselves, we’re reinventing ourselves by entering new areas where we’ve never been before, including biostimulants, microelements and technologies for optimal agricultural management,” he says.
“To do that, Haifa is in the process of implementing a US$700 million investment program in our factory in Israel, including expansion of our production capacity, as well as upstream investment in a blue ammonia plant.”
Ammonia is the major raw material in the production of nitrogen fertilizers, so shoring up the supply of this ingredient is essential. Once completed, the US$200 million-plus plant will be the only one of its kind in the country with a capacity to produce around 100,000 metric tons of blue ammonia per year, 70 percent of which will cover its own production needs. The rest will be sold to customers in Israel for fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, paint, refrigerants, synthetic fibers and more.
More than 40 hectares of land next to the plant will be covered with photovoltaic panels, and the solar energy this field generates will fuel the production of blue ammonia, a cleaner ammonia. On another nearby plot, a CO2 plant is being concurrently constructed to store the carbon captured from the ammonia production process.
“There’s a big CO2 usage in Israel, but the country imports it,” he reveals. “This CO2 will be pure and will be able to serve industries such as food and beverage and agriculture. This is just a hint of the sustainable principles that Haifa is building its future on, based on the circular economy.”
Investments are also being made in a railway line directly into the factory.
“Everything will be mobilized by trains,” Levin says. “The entire supply chain from the production through to distribution to the end usage of our products is a process we are striving to make circular, sustainable and with minimal impact on the environment, which we measure and monitor throughout the process.”
The past few years have also seen Haifa become a major player not only in the macronutrients (nitrogen and potassium, among others) market, but also micronutrients (for example, iron, zinc and copper).
Along with product diversification, Levin also has his eye on geographical expansion. “We currently have 18 subsidiaries, each of them a regional hub, along with production facilities in Israel, France and Canada. These subsidiary hubs allow Haifa to distribute its products to more than 100 countries.”
Recently, it has enlarged its footprint to include operations in Columbia and Ecuador.
“We are looking to expand our operation into more countries that need our agricultural know-how and our offerings, such as in Brazil and India,” he says, adding that open-field crops like maize, soybeans, rice and wheat are where he spots particular potential for growth.
Along with the critical recovery of its production capacity and implementing its sustainability strategy, Levin explains that business development is another pillar he is currently focused on. The company recently joined agri-food venture capital fund FLORA Ventures as an anchor investor, with early investments including farm management technology.
In addition, Haifa recently completed the acquisition of 100 percent of a startup called Agri IOT with the intention of accelerating the development of its software, Croptune. The application is able to identify the level of nitrogen in any crop and draw agronomy conclusions simply from photos snapped on a smartphone.
“The initiative to establish the FLORA fund with these excellent partners is part of Haifa’s effort to meet ideas and developments in their early stages and integrate them into Haifa’s offering,” he says.
With Haifa making such a commitment to new technology, it’s no surprise that the first of its three core values is innovation, with impact and compassion being of equal importance to the company. Compassion is more than donations and community projects, Levin explains. Rather, it’s defined by a “compass of behavior”.
“Every action that we take must create a win-win for us as a company, for our employees, our clients, the authorities, the regulators and our vendors,” he explains.
Such a compass has meant that even across the challenges the company has faced in recent years, relationships with key strategic clients and vendors – such as ocean freight transporter Carmel Shipping, natural gas and oil producer New Med Energy and logistics company Fridenson Group – remain as strong as ever.
“It’s a big differentiator between Haifa and many other organizations,” Levin says.
What is another clear point of difference is its commitment to delivering the best agronomy practices.
“Precision agriculture is the soul of Haifa,” he insists. “It’s what we’ve practiced from day one.
“It’s something all of our organization is channeling directly to serve our clients, wherever they are.”