How UC Davis research could save farmers money while fighting climate change

Long-lasting drought and rising production costs have tested Californian farmers this year. Fertilizer is one of the biggest expenses for a farmer. In the past year alone, the price of nitrogen-based fertilizers has doubled due to supply issues. Despite their high cost, fertilizers are a necessary expense for farmers to ensure their crops produce enough food to meet growing demand. But nitrogen fertilizers also pose significant environmental threats. “The problem is that more than half of everything we put on the ground runs off and goes into our water sources,” said Eduardo Blumwald, a distinguished professor of plant science at UC Davis. This can lead to contaminated drinking water, excess plants. and algae growth and even increased greenhouse gases. “Nitrate (a product of fertilizer) can be broken down in the soil by bacteria and produce nitrous oxide,” Blumwald said. “It actually dissolves our ozone layer. And that can become a maximum contributor to global warming.” The Blumwald research team has spent the past few years working on a solution to the monetary and environmental cost of using these fertilizers. Simply put: they are looking for ways to use less while maintaining a plant’s productivity. To do this, they use bacteria that naturally exist in fertile soil. “The bacterium takes nitrogen from the air, produces ammonium, the plant takes ammonium. If the plant takes ammonium produced by the bacterium, less nitrogen must be put in the soil” , Blumwald said. Rice plants are modified to create an environment where soil bacteria can thrive. These changes do not alter the DNA of the plant, so the rice produced has the same taste and nutritional value. Blumwald’s lab has already proven that this method works on a small scale in the lab. He said the next step is to bring in industry partners who could help with additional testing and possibly grow this crop on commercial farms. If that happens, Blumwald says American farmers could save billions of dollars each year. 10% of the nitrogen the plant needs by doing that, US farmers alone could save $10-15 billion a year,” Blumwald said.

Long-lasting drought and rising production costs have tested Californian farmers this year.

Fertilizer is one of the biggest expenses for a farmer. In the past year alone, the price of nitrogen fertilizers has doubled due to supply issues.

Despite the high cost, fertilizers are a necessary expense for farmers to ensure their crops produce enough food to meet growing demand. But nitrogen fertilizers also pose significant environmental threats.

“The problem is that more than half of everything we put on the ground runs off and goes into our water sources,” said Eduardo Blumwald, a distinguished professor of plant science at UC Davis.

This can lead to contaminated drinking water, excessive plant and algae growth, and even increased greenhouse gases.

“Nitrate (a product of fertilizer) can be broken down in the soil by bacteria and produce nitrous oxide gas,” Blumwald said. “It actually dissolves our ozone layer. And that can become a maximum contributor to global warming.”

The Blumwald research team has spent the last few years working on a solution to the monetary and environmental cost of using these fertilizers. Simply put: they are looking for ways to use less while maintaining plant productivity.

To do this, they enlist the help of bacteria that naturally exist in fertile soil.

“The bacterium takes nitrogen from the air, produces ammonium, the plant takes ammonium. If the plant takes ammonium produced by the bacterium, you have to put less nitrogen in the soil” , Blumwald said.

Rice plants are modified to create an environment where soil bacteria can thrive. These changes do not alter the DNA of the plant, so the rice produced has the same taste and nutritional value.

Blumwald’s lab has already proven that this method works on a small scale in the lab. He said the next step is to bring in industry partners who could help with further testing and possibly growing this crop on commercial farms.

If that happens, Blumwald says American farmers could save billions of dollars every year.

“If we could supply just 10% of the nitrogen the plant needs by doing this, American farmers alone could save $10 billion to $15 billion a year,” Blumwald said.

Blumwald said his lab will also soon expand to work on mazes and wheat plants.