Home » Farming » Power to the microbe: how agriculture’s nitrogen fix can protect crops

Tom Tregunno

Global Market Manager, Azotic Technologies

The 760 million tonnes of wheat, 515 million tonnes of rice and 1.2 billion tonnes of corn we grow each year rely on nitrogen fertiliser: without it, we’d struggle to grow half that volume.

Unfortunately, synthetic nitrogen production contributes 5% to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Then there’s nitrous oxide: 235 times more damaging than carbon dioxide; emitted when fertiliser’s applied. Moreover, nitrates trickle into watercourses. Technological solutions, such as encapsulation to allow controlled release, often involve plastics — substituting one harm with another. 

Nature’s nitrogen fix  

Industrial fertilisers incorporate atmospheric nitrogen. That same nitrogen is tapped by legumes, the plant family that includes peas and beans. They strike up a beneficial relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. 

“Agriculture would be transformed by enabling this mechanism for every crop,” enthuses Tom Tregunno, Global Market Manager at Azotic Technologies. The British agtech startup hopes to commercialise 30 years of research into Gluconocetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd), a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that unlike Rhizobium — the legumes’ friend — isn’t fussy about which species it teams up with. 

Agriculture would be transformed by
enabling this mechanism for every crop.

“Gd was discovered in sugar cane. It colonises every cell throughout the plant, creating a mini nitrogen-fixing unit in each one,” Tregunno explains. “Rather than the roots absorbing nitrogen, each cell produces its own.” Sprayed onto crops’ leaves, Gd reduces synthetic nitrogen applications without compromising crop yield. This has held true across four years of commercial usage in North America. 

Protecting crop production 

Gd, trade name Encera, is one of a handful of similar ‘biological nitrogen fixation’ products. “These products aren’t a substitute for fertiliser,” Tregunno admits. “Nevertheless, Encera can cut a crop’s demand by around one-quarter. 

“Gd can protect crop production in a changing climate, too,” reveals Tregunno. “Crops struggle with nitrogen when there’s little soil moisture, but Gd-treated crops better manage heat and drought stress.” 

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