Houston, we’ve got a problem. That’s the first thing you see when you visit the Terra Optima Labs Inc. (Terra Optima) website.
They share some jarring stats, including the fact that more than half of all food produced in Canada is wasted (58%), and up to 90% of soils may be degraded by 2050 globally.
Based in London, Ont. at the Western Fair District, the Terra Optima team believes they have a solution – store carbon in soils, not the atmosphere. They have created a circular system which can divert food wastes from landfills and process it into natural soil amendments, fertilizers, and food, using natural organisms. They use composting worms that consume food waste and produce a valuable manure output called castings, which has the potential to be used as a natural soil amendment.
What they needed, though, was a research and development team to validate their product.
When Will Wang and Dan Nejman, Terra Optima co-founders, met members of the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC) team at a cannabis conference recently, they knew the HESIC team was the right one for the job of conducting research trials.
“Terra Optima Labs approached HESIC because of their expertise in conducting comprehensive plant growth trials which fulfilled all our desired research requirements (and more),” Will said.
Their innovation challenge was that they didn’t possess the knowledge or have access to controlled environment crop growth to perform reliable growth trials to gain knowledge on their product’s efficacy on plant growth. They therefore turned to the HESIC team.
The objective of this trial was to examine the effects of a novel soil amendment, a type of vermichar produced by Terra Optima Labs, on the growth and health of leafy green and fruiting crops. The trial completed by HESIC revealed that Terra Optima Labs’ new vermichar technology was the top performer when compared against other soluble chemical fertilizers. The growth of both basil and strawberry in media amended with 10% vermichar, fertigated with compost tea, outperformed the commercially available media fertigated with soluble chemical fertilizers.
“We were able to gain access to experts in horticulture and research who designed and executed growth trials to a degree which we could not do in-house. HESIC’s greenhouse is a great asset to provide a controlled environment to conduct trials year-round.”
– Will Wang, Co-Founder, Terra Optima Labs
The effect of the vermichar on plant growth was tested at different volumes as a media amendment (0%, 10%, and 20%), in addition to being used as a starter for compost tea. Ocimum basilicum (Basil) and Fragaria x ananassa (strawberry) crops were grown in five treatments containing vermichar and/or compost tea, or neither (‘control’).
Results of this trial show that 10% vermichar by volume incorporated into media produced significant benefits for both crops when fertigated with compost tea. Of all treatments with vermichar, basil was the tallest, most green, and produced the highest overall amount of biomass in the 10% vermichar blend fertigated with compost tea.
The height and leaf colour of this treatment was similar to the control, however the 10% vermichar and compost tea treatment surpassed the control in the amount of overall basil produced by weight, by an increase of 20%. In the strawberry crop, when compared to the control, the 10% vermichar with compost tea treatment initiated flower production five days earlier, produced nearly two-thirds more harvestable fruit, and averaged 1.5% higher in total soluble solids (TSS, °Brix). The growth of both basil and strawberry in media amended with 10% vermichar, fertigated with compost tea, outperformed the commercially available media fertigated with soluble chemical fertilizers.
“We were able to gain access to experts in horticulture and research who designed and executed growth trials to a degree which we could not do in-house. HESIC’s greenhouse is a great asset to provide a controlled environment to conduct trials year-round,” Will added.
For the industry partner, an important piece of this research is knowing that there is real impact in the results. “The results validated the great effects of our product which we have received from customers reviews and demonstrated in-house. The results also helped determine future product development pathways that we could further invest in,” Will said.
He added, “The ability for our natural amendment to outperform soluble chemical fertilizers on yield helps support the benefits of living soil on plant health. It also shows that we could sustainably produce food at higher yields using natural soil amendments (in our case, upcycled from food waste) over soluble chemical fertilizers which often have negative externalities across their lifecycle.”
This project was made possible with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, through the Greenhouse Technology Network.