Research breakthroughs have been pretty great for Mother Earth lately: We’re on the cusp of treating polluted water with little more than apple and tomato peels, and now Professor Edward Cocking from the University of Nottingham has created a new technology which may soon bring the end of environment destroying fertilizers.
The new technology, known as N-Fix, puts nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. With this bacteria, plants are then able to fix and hold nitrogen from the atmosphere, rather than just from the soil (where we must use harmful synthetic nitrogen fertilizers).
This method of nitrogen absorption can provide a plant with almost all of its nitrogen requirements, making nitrogen-rich fertilizer redundant. The possible implications for agriculture – and the entire food system – are huge.
“Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security,” Cocking told the University of Nottingham press.
What’s so important about nitrogen?
Without nitrogen in the cells, plants cannot survive and grow because nitrogen is one of the building blocks for protein. There’s only a small number of plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere (namely legumes), but for the rest they require nitrogen-rich soil. Hence most crops across the globe must utilize synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Synthetic fertilizers are rich in synthetic nitrogen, which actually depletes the soil of carbon, leaving the eco-system vulnerable to pests, droughts and floods. Then you get the fertilizer run-off into water systems (more on that in a moment).
Cocking went on to say, “The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”
Nitrogen pollution dangers
Nitrate pollution - oxides of nitrogen and ammonia - is actually one of our environments biggest pollutants. Polluted run-off causes dead zones in our oceans and rivers, where the oxygen gets depleted. Further, atmospheric nitrogen deposition has caused at least 10% loss of plant diversity in over two-thirds of Europe’s forests.
In fact, studies estimate the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is Eur 70 -320 billion per year (USD 93 -424). That’s more than double the extra income gained from using nitrogen fertilizers in European agriculture.
This new N-Fix technology actually appears to be a very environment friendly alternative. It works by coating plant seeds with natural nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and then, as it grows, every cell in the plant has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air as well as the soil.
The entire process requires no bio-engineering or genetic modification.
The technology is currently undergoing more large-scale field-testing, after which it will require regulatory approval for use in any country. It’s expected to be commercially available within 3 years.
With the ever-mounting environmental damage and high cost of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, this revolutionary change in agricultural practices will benefit farmers, consumers and the planet.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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