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Editorial comment

Nitrogen, perhaps more than any other nutrient, is the focus of controversial political debate, being a facilitator of the world food supply on the one hand, while, on the other, leaving a significant environmental footprint if not used efficiently.

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Casual observers of the agricultural sector tend to peddle rather crude approaches to the problem of boosting the effectiveness of nitrogen as a fertilizer when, in reality, the industry must start tackling the true complexity of agricultural systems with a more holistic approach.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that nitrogen is the only reason half of us are here. Without it, we would not be able to support the global food supply, even if we were to convert all global land reserves to crop-rearing overnight. And somehow, we still have to find half of the amount of food again by 2050 to feed nearly 10 billion people.

So it rests upon the shoulders of researchers like me to squeeze more out of each drop of nitrogen - the cornerstone of global food security. There is, it should be said, ample opportunity to do so, seeing as current processes derive benefit from only half the nitrogen that is currently applied to our soils. The rest is released into the air, leaches into the water, and spills into natural land - areas where crops struggle to take it up.

Not only do crops miss out, but that waste often has negative ecological consequences, such as the excessive build-up of nutrients in land where water naturally collects, or the loss of biodiversity.

Fertilizer companies should, therefore, consider how best to address these consequences. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach – there are numerous factors to consider in developing more sophisticated products that help increase the agricultural efficacy of nitrogen. Such a holistic approach is key if we are to move forward as an industry.

The first rule is to respect existing plant nutrition research. Liebig’s law suggests that simply spreading big volumes of nutrients on crops has a far less helpful effect than getting the nutrient balance right. As plants demand a particular group of essential nutrients, the abundance of all others does not compensate if one is scarcely present.

Secondly, the degree of nutrient uptake in crops can be significantly boosted if applied in the form that is best suited to that particular plant.

In drip fertigation systems, a third weapon in the fight to boost the take-up of nitrogen is to develop and roll out a line of water soluble fertilizers, which carry the nutrients directly to the plants’ roots.

To keep fertilizer-derived nitrogen in the root zone, companies should look to wield direct control over its metabolism in the soil through the addition of urease inhibitors, which minimise ammonia emissions. The ability to control the breakdown of nitrogen can also be achieved through a new generation of nitrification inhibitors, which reduce nitrate leaching significantly and can eliminate entirely fertilizer-derived greenhouse gases. The benefit of this technology can even extend to organic fertilizers, via the treatment of manure with nitrification inhibitors. Currently, half of all nitrogen fertilizer is applied through organic sources such as manure, which is notoriously inefficient when it comes to maximising nutrient uptake.

Finally, biostimulants are the answer to tackling the negative effects of so-called abiotic stress factors, such as heat, cold, drought, food, and salinity. Biostimulants are various compounds, substances, and micro-organisms applied to plants or soils to improve crop yields.

Seen globally, it is a range of technologies and processes that is required to propel nitrogen fertilization forward, reducing waste and the negative side-effects by keeping nutrients in their target region – the root zone.

But even more broadly, it is a holistic mindset that we must adopt as an industry. Training distributors and farmers so that they are able to adopt this group of solutions, and stressing the importance of doing so through trade media and beyond is vital. By doing so, we will be well on our way to meeting the demands of future generations for both a secure food supply and greater consideration for the environment.