The Organic Solution to Efficient Fertilizer Uptake
The application of fertilizer to increase the yield and security of agricultural crops is a practice dating back to the times of the ancient Egyptians and Romans. Facing countless key modernizations over the last centuries, agriculture now faces contemporary issues such as climate uncertainty and environmental sustainability. In an industry of often slim margins, farmers depend on reliable and affordable fertilizers to maximize crop yields. They are also forced to contend with a changing environment for which history has no precedent, making agricultural innovations, especially in the fertilizer industry, all the more indispensable. Currently, to obtain a given yield of crops, farmers must over-apply fertilizers to their field; the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers is massively energy intensive.
Inefficient use of fertilizer is a cost to farmers and damaging to the environment; excess nitrogen from fertilizer runoff has been the cause of significant environmental tragedies like the Lake Erie dead zone and increased nitrous oxide emissions in response to fertilizer application are a significant source of global greenhouse gases. A key issue in the application of fertilizers is that they are applied typically at the beginning of the planting cycle of crops because once the crops are growing, it is often difficult to apply fertilizers again. This means that farmers apply far more fertilizer in one dose that can be taken up by plants, and often at not at the time when the plants need it most. This creates fertilizer runoff into nearby bodies of water and nitrous oxide gas accumulation in the atmosphere.
Elizabeth Gillies, Hugh Henry, and their labs are researching an organic polymer coating for fertilizer pellets to improve their use efficiency for crops. Recent research has shown significant increases in crop yield and fertilizer uptake efficiency when fertilizers are coated with plastic polymers – the polymers eventually degrade over time, and the fertilizer gets taken up by crops. But the polymers presented a new problem: they were introducing micro-plastics into soils and water. The Gillies and Henry labs are building new polymers from organic compounds which are able to deliver a specifically time-targeted release of the fertilizer without contributing to an increasingly toxic global plastic build-up.
Creating organic polymers for fertilizer application will simultaneously reduce the financial burden on farmers from having to over-fertilize early in the crop cycle, increase crop yield and security, minimize environmental damage from nitrogen runoff and emissions, and eliminate a source of microplastics in agricultural soils and water. Current polymer-coated fertilizers have resulted in reduced nitrous oxide emissions by up to 40% and reduced nitrogen leaching into the soil by up to 20%, all while maintaining or even improving crop yield. These improved efficiencies give farmers the crop security they need while minimizing costs and environmental damage.