Plants that power themselves: Fighting desertification and deforestation with SOFRAPAR

By Georgia Tindale

Family-run French company, SOFRAPAR, has introduced new carbon uptake booster technology that is helping to combat desertification and deforestation. In Senegal, this is reinforcing a rapidly-declining natural forest area and helping local populations regain some food security.

Burning up: A summer of losing trees

The summer of 2023 has been marred by extreme weather events. According to reports from the Red Cross, in the largest wildfire-based evacuation to date, over 20,000 people had to be evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes in late July, with wildfires also spreading into Portugal, Croatia, across the Mediterranean, Algeria and were even found as far north as Canada.

The devastating impact of wildfires on both the occupants and land in affected areas is obvious for all to see, and wildfires rightly generate a huge amount of global press as relief efforts are coordinated. One global environmental problem that is significantly less prominent in headlines is desertification.

Desertification is defined as the process by which vegetation in drylands (such as grasslands or shrublands) decreases and eventually disappears, moving from ecosystem to desert, as a result of various human and climatic factors. This often goes hand-in-hand with deforestation: the permanent removal of trees from a forest.

According to the United Nations, as much as two thirds of the earth is currently undergoing desertification, with 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil disappearing each year. There are numerous factors which can cause or worsen desertification, including human activities like deforestation and the overexploitation of aquifers, as well as the effects of human-driven climate change, such as droughts, hurricanes and wildfires. In short, desertification and deforestation represent some of the world’s most pressing ecological threats today.

Thankfully, there is a forward-thinking company stepping up to fight this: the family-run France-based plant physiology specialists at SOFRAPAR.

Ecobios: The seeds of R&D

“Through many years of targeted R&D project work, we have developed the most amazing strategic products to combat desertification and deforestation.” – De Mil

SOFRAPAR have developed a protocol with a range of specific natural molecules called Ecobios. “Ecobios, uses painstakingly-developed technology to considerably improve crops’ yields and qualities, whilst simultaneously respecting their surrounding natural environment”, explains SOFRAPAR company director Christophe De Mil. As an additional environmental bonus, plants treated with Ecobios’ products also absorb 20% more carbon from the atmosphere thanks to their boost to photosynthesis.

For the French-born De Mil, who has a background in organic farming, a desire to help areas suffering from a lack of crops piqued his enthusiasm for spearheading a project in this area.

“In particular, I wanted to work with reforestation in the southern hemisphere, because I was very confident that we could help people feed themselves by boosting the growth of their plants and crops through our outstanding discovery, making a major difference to those living in this area,” he explains.

An Innowwide opportunity and international collaboration

Happily, for SOFRAPAR, the opportunity to take on such a project presented itself in 2020 when the Innowwide pilot programme funded SOFRAPAR’s BIOFOREST project. This six-month project helped SOFRAPAR undertake its first steps in commercialising its patented products in Senegal, working in collaboration with a local subcontractor, Oceanium Dakar.

Senegal was a logical choice for SOFRAPAR, as the country currently faces massive desertification and deforestation. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimations, Senegal’s overall natural forest area has diminished by almost 43% since the 1960s to 6.3 million hectares today, thus accentuating poverty and food insecurity and jeopardising the livelihoods of the local populations.

With SOFRAPAR’s biotechnology already successfully in use in many countries, its expansion into Senegal represents more than a straightforward market objective, but a social and ecological vocation for De Mil and his team. “Our products will offer an effective and ecological solution for the sustainable and competitive development of agriculture in the West African region, alongside offering the opportunity to foster reforestation initiatives like the Great Green Wall.”

Taking place as the project did during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its associated travel restrictions, De Mil and his team were not able to travel to Dakar themselves in person, meaning that international collaboration with the Senegal-based partner played a vital role in its success.

Unpacking plant powers against desertification

As for the Ecobios products themselves, these are composed of a family of small molecules of natural origin and low molecular weight, identified and patented under the names of Liptonine and Lipoyxline.

Due to both their lipo-solubility and lack of energy expenditure, they are able to cross cell membranes and increase both the amount of light absorbed by the plant and the efficiency of its photosynthesis, thus majorly aiding the growth of plants in areas affected by deforestation or desertification and also coping with drought or excess UVA.

Shooting above competitors

The unique breakthrough technology behind Ecobios’ products enables the plants treated with them to effectively resolve their own needs. “The plant acts as an engine, as its own pilot, and is able to decide when and how it is going to help the surrounding soil life through its growth, working alongside, not in competition with, local species,” highlights De Mil. “This also means that their growth can be initiated at difficult times, even when there doesn’t appear to be enough leaves on a plant,” explains De Mil.

“Thanks as well to the increased carbon uptake capacity provided by our products, you are fuelling the plant with all the energy it needs to do what it needs to do. The soil is also a major beneficiary for using our products – as these increase the biodiversity of bacteria and mycorrhiza, and the soil structure and porosity are both positively changed. As for the results, this technology is not just working one in 10 times, it is working more than 95% of the time.” – De Mil

Spreading the seed: International growth?

Following the success of SOFRAPAR’s Innowwide project, and amidst enthusiastic talk of potentially applying to more international funding programmes, the company is confident that it can upscale its technology and plant millions of trees and plants in reforestation efforts worldwide.

The primary obstacle facing this, as it stands, is one of disseminating sufficient knowledge about how to manage reforestation smartly. “People need to be smarter in the way they do tree plantation, for example, following an extreme weather event”, explains De Mil. “You can’t always plant the same species as a quick fix; you need to encourage diversity in an area. We also need to promote the idea that trees can grow even after they have been burned: do not just cut it down, even though they might look dead on the surface.”

Growing into the future

Finally, even as the effects of the climate emergency continue to rear their unignorable heads, with extreme weather events increasing in frequency, from wildfires to floods and much more, technology like that offered by SOFRAPAR offers a welcome glimmer of hope for stepping towards mitigating effects in the future.

“The more untouched and growing forests there are globally and the more green soil there is, the less these extreme weather events will happen. This is the message we want to try and get across.” – De Mil

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Posted 11 September 23