Can We Grow One of the World’s Largest Food Crops Without Fertilizer?

Corn. It’s the dominant crop of the developed world. A highly valuable commodity used to make food
and fuel. But in order to grow, corn needs nitrogen. And although nitrogen makes up 78% of our
atmosphere, it’s not in a form that corn can use. So, like most commercial crops, corn, or maize,
gets its nitrogen from synthetic fertilizer. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has helped to
feed billions of people, preventing massive global starvation. But, it comes at a cost. Over 80 billion dollars a year globally. Over 11 billion in the U.S. alone. One to two of the Earth’s energy supply
is used to make the fertilizer, creating one to two percent of world’s carbon footprint. Then, even more energy is used to transport
and apply it. And much of the nitrogen escapes in the form
of greenhouse gases. And fertilizer also runs off the fields, ending
up in our water ways, causing an enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a huge problem and it’s getting worse
every year. But, in the mountains of Mexico, there’s an
indigenous variety of corn grown in an isolated community for centuries, near where corn first
originated. A unique trait appeared to have evloved in
this type of corn: Nitrogen Fixation. This corn appears to be a able to fix the
nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable form. Biological nitrogen fixation describes a plant’s
ability to pull in and use nitrogen from the atmosphere instead of requiring fertilizer. This occurs when an enzyme called nitrogenase
converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which can be used by a plant for growth. This cutting edge research has its roots decades
ago, when Howard-Yana Shapiro, who is now Mars’ Chief Agricultural Officer, observed
this unique corn in a small community in Mexico. We didn’t have the next generation equipment,
the next sequencers, we didn’t have a way to analyze this. And the whole notion of micro-biomes and meta-genomics wasn’t even invented. So it’s great to live long enough to have
the science catch up to answer a question that you have. This corn generates a series of aerial roots. Turns out this is an extremely unique morphological
trait. The indigenous corn produces large amounts
of mucilage from aerial roots between three to six months after planting. During certain times of the year, there’s a secretion
of mucilage or mucigel which you can physically see dripping off the roots. This meucelage provides a low-oxygen and sugar-rich
environment for the diverse microbes. This serves as a sight for nitrogen fixation. The mucilage provides a unique home or environment
for these bacteria that fix nitrogen. They can restrict the diffusion of oxygen
and oxygen kills the ability of bacteria to fix nitrogen. So the mucilage restricts oxygen, creates
a low oxygen environment, and it provides sugars; it’s feeding the bacteria. So classic symbiosis. It’s really the wisdom of the Mars family
that made that possible through direct funding to the University of California, Davis. They understood what would happen if you could reduce or eliminate the nitrogen applied to agricultural fields around the world.

6 thoughts on “Can We Grow One of the World’s Largest Food Crops Without Fertilizer?

  1. Every single corn I grow makes it and they take just 4 months to grow and make any size and color of corn

  2. Amazing! David C Johnson of New Mexico State univ has something as amazing as this: He grows large crops i the desert using small doses of compost. Search for the BEAM…

  3. How can these substances that drip from the plant, reduce or even eliminate oxygen? Seems unlikely to me. Other researchers suggest that oxygen is essential to (some of) the life in the soils…

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