Friday, 22 September 2017

Helping Plants Fix Nitrogen

There's an interesting story in the latest Modern Farmer about work by Bayer that seeks to persuade ordinary plants to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, the same trick legumes do in a joint-venture with Rhizobia. It's well worth a read if you're into sustainable farming.

For me, this story underlines two sad facts. If you'll bear with me while I describe them, I'll reward you at the end with a positive suggestion.

The first sad fact is that agricultural science has been fully corrupted by private money. When DairyNZ spends our levy money on research it frequently partners with the private sector. This biases the research away from general purpose technologies in favour of things that can be more narrowly commercialised. For example, instead of seeking to understand below-ground farming by examining options for fostering various bacteria, fungi and protozoans, we get "precision agriculture" research aimed at getting the most value out of bagged urea. This is partly because the urea vendors want to paint themselves as good guys (while still selling lots of urea) and partly because other folks are keen on selling the sensors and other equipment you'll need for precision agriculture.

Mainly though, its because DairyNZ can't imagine that biological farming as practiced in New Zealand could be worth investigating. The notion that promoting symbiosis between plant roots and living organisms in the soil could reduce the need for bagged fertiliser seems offensive on some visceral level. Have a read of what happened when I asked DairyNZ folks about this a couple of years ago.

Second, and equally sad, we're going to have to either figure this out for ourselves or wait until our kind input suppliers have figured out how to turn a dollar out of it. We've known for some time that the big agchem companies are quietly working away on biological methods, knowing of course that today's input-intensive agriculture is looking less and less sustainable as time goes on. The Bayer project reported on by Modern Farmer is further evidence of this plan.

It's plausible to argue that it doesn't really matter too much if this new frontier of farming ends up being sold to us by Bayer and their mates. I'm less sanguine, partly because this approach will probably take much longer than a collective research effort aimed at creating a general purpose technology. The reason is that Bayer don't just need to make it work: they also need to make it work in a way that delivers revenue to Bayer. By contrast, if we were doing the actual public good research DairyNZ is supposed to be doing, the revenue consequences would be irrelevant. A larger set of methods would be available for consideration so it'd be easier & quicker to find one that worked.

OK. So much for the misery. Here's the bright spot: you can try exactly this same trick at home. Bayer understandably didn't disclose the bacteria it is working with, but there's a strong possibility it'll be Azotobacter chroococcum, first discovered in 1901. Read about this wonderful bacteria here. We've been buying it in bags, mixing it in with our foliar sprays, and using it to inoculate seeds before sowing. It seems intuitively plausible that sustainable populations of this bacteria could become established under suitable soil conditions, at which point there would be no need for further spreading.

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