Here’s an intriguing article about research into a new method of fertilizing food crops. Nitrogen is one of the key elements required for plant growth, but because it’s not found everywhere on the planet, people use nitrogen fertilizers to boost yields in areas with low nitrogen levels. Unfortunately, the Haber process (the industrial process of producing nitrogen fertilizers) requires large inputs of energy, which then means large outputs of greenhouse gases. Commercial fertilizers are also expensive, especially for low-income and subsistence farmers, and they often leach into rivers and lakes, causing eutrophication.
This potential discovery from the world of biotechnology could change food production in several important ways. First, the plants themselves would be able to ‘fix’ nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, essentially supplying their own fertilizer. Second, small-holder farmers (like most of the farmers in Tanzania) wouldn’t have to buy fertilizer anymore, which means they’d have more money to spend on things such as education and health care for their families. Third, reducing the energy demand for the Haber process would lessen our carbon footprint and our contribution to climate change. And lastly, the problems of eutrophication – lifeless, oxygen-starved lakes and streams – may also diminish.