Editorial: The need for more efficient nitrogen

Reducing use of nitrogen fertilizer is a big potential win for farmers and critics of farm practices.

The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process and its ability to pull molecular nitrogen from the air is one of the foundations of modern society. 

Nitrogen fertilizer allowed farmers to feed crops and people as yields grew. They can replace the nitrogen removed by crops each year to keep the land productive.

However, nitrogen fertilizer produces nitrous oxide, one of the greenhouse gases of most concern. It’s also a problem in the environment when too much is applied. It moves to the air or in water and then adds nitrogen when it’s not needed in the environment.

Nitrogen is one of the largest costs on farms, so any nitrogen fertilizer that can be saved will also improve farm incomes.

There’s significant financial and environmental impetus to reduce its use where it makes the most sense. There’s some serious investment going into finding solutions.

Our August 23 issue of Farmtario has an article about products coming to market that help plants pull nitrogen from the air, avoiding the whole commercial production and delivery process and the need to apply it.

I’ve seen many of these sorts of products over the years and have approached most of them with some trepidation, but I’m becoming more convinced that we’re seeing breakthroughs in this area. 

There are already biologicals on the market like Corteva’s Utrisha N. Encapsulated nitrogen is another option with impact. A Canadian company, FuelPositive, says it has a carbon-neutral ammonia production process, if it is powered by renewable energy sources. It says that a farmer or a group of farmers could produce their own ammonia from its modular process and then use it for fertilizer or to dry crops.

IBM is jumping into the nitrogen world too. As we reported in February, it aims to use quantum computing and artificial intelligence to improve the Haber-Bosch process to reduce the amount of energy used in creating nitrogen fertilizer.

An IBM scientist says nitrogen fertilizer has enabled farmers to feed double the number of people they once did, but creating a tonne of fertilizer uses a tonne of fossil fuels and consumes two to three per cent of global energy each year.

These are serious players aiming to have a serious impact on nitrogen, but farmers have a role to play as well.

Variable rate fertilizer is completely possible with today’s technology and data captured on farms. However, most farmers apply a standard amount of nitrogen each year to cover the potential of a bumper crop that needs more nitrogen and the risk of extra rain reducing the amount of nitrogen available to the crop.

That’s an issue for this damp summer in southern Ontario, with tissue tests showing low nitrogen levels.

While a deficit of any major single nutrient is a limit to yield, nitrogen is a big one and many farmers don’t want to take the risk – hence the lack of payback for variable rate nitrogen found by University of Guelph professors.

Some farmers have moved to in-season nitrogen top-ups, dropping nitrogen between corn rows. It’s a good practice, but farmers who have purchased the equipment to do so have told us they’re not always sure they’d do it again.

For farmers, N is one of the most important input decisions on the farm, which is why they don’t mess around with it. We also need nitrogen to continue feeding the world.

While farmers should be constantly vigilant for ways to reduce their need for nitrogen on the farm, a solution further up the chain, with the whole nitrogen value chain having less of an impact on the climate and the environment, should be a significant societal goal. The big players now involved in finding solutions are welcome and here’s hoping that they find them soon.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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