Addressing the problems created by nitrogen fertiliser

17 February 2022 by Joann Cattlin

Nitrogen fertilisers are essential to produce food for more than half the world’s population, but current fertiliser products are generally inefficient. More than half of the fertiliser applied to crops is not used and is lost to the natural environment, causing air and water pollution, growth of algae in our lakes and rivers, and damaging natural ecosystems, most famously the Great Barrier Reef. This creates significant challenges for farmers because nitrogen fertilisers play a key role in maintaining crop quality and recent increases in the price of fertiliser means farmers want to improve their use of nitrogen.

Good management of nitrogen in agricultural production is key to achieving global food security with minimal degradation of ecosystems and impacts on human health. The challenge is that even in well managed systems, nitrogen can still be in excess of plant needs, and dealing with this extends beyond farms and requires concerted efforts from a range of stakeholders including government, industry, retailers and researchers.

The University of Melbourne has partnered with Incitec Pivot Fertilisers, Elders Rural Services and La Trobe University to bring together researchers from a range of disciplines in the ARC Research Hub for Smart Fertilisers to address this challenge. The Hub officially commenced in August 2021 and will operate for 5 years.

The Hub aims to develop a new class of nitrogen fertilisers and inhibitors designed to stem the 50-80% nitrogen losses to the environment from current products to address challenges to nitrogen management posed by a diverse, variable and changing climate, and a broad range of soil conditions that exists in Australia’s agricultural regions. Economic modelling will ensure new products are beneficial for farmers, as well as the environment, and inform development of tools to better understand the product impacts.

The Hub research program will involve a number of interconnected projects involving chemists, soil scientists, chemical engineers, microbiologists and economists working closely with industry and growers to develop new knowledge and products. These projects include:

  • Development of engineered coatings that enable a controlled release of nutrients and inhibitors into the soil.
  • Designing new, more efficient urease and nitrification inhibitors which can control the form of nitrogen that occurs in soil to minimise losses.
  • Understanding how the plant-soil microbiome influences the way plants use nitrogen fertilisers.
  • Measuring and evaluating the agronomic, environmental and social benefits of new fertilisers developed by the Hub.
  • Identifying and mapping the commercial value of new fertilisers developed by the Hub.

Regular consultation and collaboration with agribusinesses and growers throughout the program will ensure new products and tools are directly informed by the challenges faced in the field. We will be meeting regularly with industry partners and advisors, and engaging with the community through field days, local grower and industry events, and conducting on farm field trials.

We will share our progress regularly through blog posts, newsletters and events.  To keep up to date with new development sign up for our newsletter.

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