Sustainable America Blog

How Fertilizer Made from Food Waste Can Help Drought-Stricken Farms

This California strawberry field is fertilized with H2H.

This California strawberry field is fertilized with H2H.

Using compost and other organic matter to augment the soil is an age-old practice. However, over the last several decades, the U.S. industrial farming system has largely left it behind in favor of chemical-based fertilizers in the search for more efficiency and higher yields. Considering the steady rise in crop yields since World War II, it’s easy to see why: Chemical-based fertilizers work.

But there’s a downside to increased productivity – chemicals also strip the soil of its nutrients and damage the natural biome. Our soil, quite simply, is worn out. Farmers have known for millennia that manure, compost and other organic matter benefit the soil. But solid organics are heavy and difficult to spread over the millions of acres of farmland that need it.

A New Breed of Fertilizer
We’ve recently invested in a company with an exciting product that gets around both of these problems. California Safe Soil has developed Harvest-to-Harvest, or H2H, a liquid fertilizer made from food waste. Comprised completely of organic matter, H2H vastly reduces the amount of chemical fertilizers needed by a crop. Just as important, the liquid can be applied to crops with farmers’ existing irrigation equipment, reducing the necessity for extra labor or equipment costs.

Food Waste Comes Full Circle
In addition to improving soil health, California Safe Soil is also making a measurable environmental impact on the supply side of its equation by utilizing food that would be wasted and keeping it from emitting damaging methane in landfills. The company sources food waste from a number of Sacramento-area grocery store chains to create its product. “By transforming the produce, meat, deli and bakery products collected from grocery stores into a liquid fertilizer, CSS is able to return the fats, amino acids and carbohydrates necessary for healthy soil organic matter back to the soil,” says Dan Morash, founder of California Safe Soil. As the company expands, it will partner to source more food waste from grocery stores and other generators of waste.

How It’s Made
The fertilizer itself is made in about three hours through a proprietary process of grinding, heating and enzymatic digesting – a major differentiation from compost, which can take several months to create. “The idea for H2H evolved from the knowledge that various companies had been hydrolyzing fish waste with enzymes for years to create a fish hydrolysate,” says Morash. “We thought if fish waste could be enzymatically digested to create a biostimulant for agriculture, the same process could be applied to other food sources as well.”

Less Water, More Yield
Field trials and studies from leading agricultural university UC Davis have found that H2H increases yields over time. H2H increases organic matter in the soil, which helps the plants’ root systems expand and retain more water and nitrogen. In turn, less water is needed to grow certain crops – a key benefit in California, where extreme drought conditions persist and water curtailments are affecting farmers’ ability to grow.

“Strawberry, tomato, vegetable and nut farmers are especially satisfied with the product, seeing impressive increase in the yields of their crops,” says Morash. So far, more than 40 California farms are using Harvest-to-Harvest in their fields. California Safe Soil is selling all the material that it can produce at its current plant and is looking to expand its capacity in the near future. The company was recently honored with the Sustainability Award at the Forbes AgTech Summit through the Thrive Accelerator Program sponsored by Forbes and SVG Partners.

Good Growth
While we are enthusiastic about California Safe Soil’s ability to generate measurable environmental impacts, we’re also keen on their prospects to be a profitable business. The company has rightly identified California’s $1.7 billion annual agricultural market as a promising starting point, and it could be highly profitable by gaining significant traction in that one state alone. California Safe Soil and its investors believe that there are likely applications for H2H beyond California, and we’d love to see farmers nationwide try this beneficial product. In the meantime, CSS is focusing on its buildout in California, and we’ll keep you up to speed on its progress.

Keeping food waste out of the landfill and growing food in a more sustainable manner are some of Sustainable America’s key missions. We’re happy that we’ve found an innovative company that seeks to address both problems. Sustainable America continues to seek investments in innovative companies like California Safe Soils as part of our mission to create a broad impact on food and fuel here in the U.S. Learn more about our investment program.

Gray Peckham
Director of Investments

RELATED ARTICLES
EcoScraps: Sowing Success From Wasted Food
A New Fix for the Nitrogen Problem
6 Ways the Coffee Industry is Turning Waste Into a Resource

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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