Death by Fertilizer

Yves here. This piece is a bit heavy on enthusiasm for techno-alternatives to fertilizer, but provides an informative overview of the problem.

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter), Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at Grist

Issac Christiancy was a white-bearded 79-year-old when the shooting over nitrogen started.

It was January 15, 1881, and the U.S. envoy to Peru had to duck for cover. Bullets whizzed through a suburb of Lima, “pattering thick and fast upon the buildings around us,” he later wrote back to Washington, D.C. Christiancy fled, throwing himself over walls and wading through ditches over an eight-mile run as shells from Chilean gunboats exploded around him, until he stumbled into his offices. Peru soon surrendered, and the night that followed was “a nightmare of chaos and unutterable horrors” as the remnants of the defeated Peruvian army looted, burned, and terrorized the city.

Chile had invaded Peru for a seemingly unlikely prize: nitrogen fertilizer. Twenty years earlier, the great European powers and the United States had come to the brink of global war over three tiny islands off the coast of Peru covered in mountains of nitrogen-rich guano. Why would anyone come to blows over piles of bird crap? Because nitrogen gave these countries the power to feed their growing populations. Peruvian guano was, as one historian put it, “worth more than all the gold shipped back to Europe in the Spanish treasure galleons.”

Nitrogen is everywhere. It makes up 80 percent of the air you’re breathing. On its own, it has no real value. But if it’s combined into a molecule with another element, like hydrogen or oxygen, it becomes something that can react with other chemicals. In this “fixed” state, plants can use it to build proteins. Our bodies use those proteins, in turn, to build muscles, bones, DNA, and babies.

But back in the 19th century, fixed nitrogen was limited. In the early 1800s, the English scholar Thomas Malthus warned of famine as population growth began to overtake farm production. Then settlers discovered the guano islands and nitrate mines of South America, and fertilizer-laden clipper ships streamed around Cape Horn back to Europe, giving farmers bumper crops and feeding a baby boom.

Britain’s population quadrupled over the next 100 years. Then in 1908, as South American nitrogen was beginning to run low, the chemist Fritz Haber discovered a way to take the inert nitrogen in air and turn it into the reactive forms plants and animals use. “Haber opened the faucet for nitrogen to flow from the air to the living world,” wrote geographer Ruth DeFries. Instead of waning, populations continued to boom.

This breakthrough solution created a crisis as large as the one it solved. Since Haber’s discovery, humans have nearly doubled Earth’s natural flow of fixed nitrogen, overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to remove it. The resulting buildup is poisoning the planet’s waterways, creating a crisis some consider even more threatening than the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But we can’t simply turn off the spigot of industrial nitrogen, because we depend on it. More than 3 billion peopl ewouldn’t be alive today without Haber’s industrial process.

Now, for the first time in over a hundred years, there’s a potential solution. A pack of startups is racing to market with a means of fixing nitrogen without polluting the Earth. One of them, Pivot Bio, just garnered a $70 million vote of confidence in a funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the coalition of big-name billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson — hoping to power climate change-beating innovation.

“Pivot Bio is addressing one of the largest sources of GHGs on the planet,” said Carmichael Roberts, a Breakthrough investor, in a press release. He noted that the Berkeley, California-based biotech might earn a fortune by “disrupting the $200 billion fertilizer market.”

Next year, Pivot plans to start getting farmers nitrogen-fixing bacteria — which efficiently delivers fertilizer to crops, no fossil fuels required. Farmers will spritz seeds with a liquid probiotic as they bury them in the ground. Another startup, Azotic Technologies based in England, is racing to bring a different bacterium to market around the same time. Intrinsyx Bio — a spin-off from a company that supplies NASA with bacteria and other critters for experiments — plans to put yet another bacterium on the market in 2020. And at least one other, the Bayer-backed Joyn Bio, is just ramping up. If any of them is able to provide a viable alternative to the international fertilizer industry, it could be the most significant environmental breakthrough since Haber figured out a way to synthetically release nitrogen from its natural bonds.

Seemingly every startup — even CryptoKitties selling cartoon cats — likes to say it’s creating “technology that will change the world.” But for the companies racing to fix nitrogen, it’s no stretch. If this solution proves out, it would clean up the pollution choking the planet’s life support systems, without forcing widespread famine and a return to the nitrogen wars.

Earth is marinating in the flood of nitrogen Haber uncorked. Start with so-called “dead zones.” Less than halfof the nitrogen that farmers spread makes it into food. The excess washes out of fields with other fertilizers and winds up in rivers, lakes, and bays where it catalyzes algal blooms. The bacteria that eat this algal slime suck the oxygen out of the water, killing every animal that can’t flee, and creating huge areas covered in slime and suffocated of oxygen and light. There are now more than 400 of these dead zones around the world (and algae problems in Florida recently barged into the U.S. Senate race), covering an area the size of Oregon. In the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River, an estimated 235,000 tons of fish and other sea creatures perish each year.

Algal bloom in Dianchi Lake, Yunnan, China. Nitrogen use is particularly heavy in Asia.Jie Zhao / Corbis via Getty Images

Wherever they gather, nitrogen compounds turn poisonous. In drinking water, they cause blue baby syndrome, which prevents infants from absorbing oxygen; in lakes, they fertilize neurotoxic algae; in farm country, they are a major source of suffocating smog.

Then there’s the climate. Some of the nitrogen seeps out of the ground as nitrous oxide (yep, laughing gas), which turns out to be a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer sucks up 1 percent of all the energy humanity harnesses, more than all the wind and solar energy produced worldwide last year, and produces as much greenhouse gas as all the homes in the United States.

The world’s largest factory for fixing nitrogen sits alongside the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, an hour’s drive from New Orleans. The CF Industries Donaldson Nitrogen Complex contains 1,400 acres of concrete tanks and steel gridwork with twisting pipes that lead to a series of chambers where gas and air are brought together at up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a pressure cooker that could squish a human body like a grape. That’s what it takes to turn nitrogen from the air into fertilizer.

The frame of this picture can only take in a small part of the CF Industries nitrogen complex in Donaldson, LouisianaJulie Dermansky / Corbis via Getty Images

At least, that’s how humans do it. Bacteria accomplish this same feat of engineering within the fragile wall of a single cell. They offer a microscopic solution for this enormous problem.

“There’s a simple elegance and beauty in the way these microbes activate nitrogen,” said Karsten Temme, Pivot Bio’s CEO.

Instead of fossil fuel, these bacteria run on sugar, which they get from plants in exchange for nitrogen. And they produce fertilizer exactly when and where plants need it: Pivot’s bacteria coat roots “like a glove,” Temme said, feeding them tiny squirts of nitrogen as they grow. That’s much more precise than spreading synthetic nitrogen, or organic guano, or liquid manure pumped from a holding tank under a hog barn. In short, turning to bacteria for fertilizer holds the potential to stem pollution without famine, food rationing, or more wars over nitrogen.

Temme was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley when he became entranced with the ability of bacteria to fix nitrogen. He started working with another student named Alvin Tamsir — first helping each other in the lab, then having mind-melding conversations outside its confines. They decided to start a company that would genetically engineer plants to produce their own fertilizer, thus solving the nitrogen crisis. It was ridiculously audacious, but at the time — as lifelong students about to graduate — every other career option seemed just as daunting, Temme said. Their professors were behind them, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave them the money to get on their feet, and they won a spot in a University of California, San Francisco startup incubator.

Pivot officially started in November 2011, and for the next two years Temme and Tamsir tried and failed to accomplish what scientists had been attempting to do since the 1970s — pluck the genetic instructions for nitrogen fixation out of bacteria and into crops. But each attempt failed. Researchers have learned that the problem contains maddening layers of complexity. Gary Stacey, a scientist on Pivot’s scientific advisory board who has been working on nitrogen fixation since 1975, told me, “My 43 years’ experience says it’s never going to work — it’s an extreme challenge.”

Temme and Tamsir were running out of money, and they were nowhere close to producing a plant that could fertilize itself. Meanwhile, debates over genetic engineering were raging. Even if they somehow succeeded, they’d need buckets of money to get through years of regulatory review, and even then the public might fear and reject the GMO plants. By mid-2013, it seemed hopeless. “We were in a tough spot,” Temme said.

On a gray day, Temme and Tamsir, both feeling defeated, laid down their pipettes and left their lab in search of coffee.

To comprehend what happened on that coffee break, you have to understand a revolution in scientific thinking that was underway. Fortunately for Temme and Tamsir, scientific progress had just opened the way for them to take a new direction.

The old dogma was that — aside from Haber’s industrial process — the only way people could fix nitrogen was to grow fields of legumes, like peas, beans, alfalfa, or clover. That’s because legumes have these strange grape-like clusters on their roots called root nodules, which provide a home for rhizobia, a class of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Sharon Doty, a professor of environmental and forest science at the University of Washington, upended this dogma. Back in 2001, Doty was in postdoctoral program at the school and wanted to take a close look at poplar trees, starting with growing a few poplar cells in petri dishes. But no matter how much she scrubbed the poplar sprigs she brought into the lab, no matter how long she soaked them in bleach, she’d wind up growing brown ooze all over her poplar cell cultures.

In exasperation, she analyzed the slime’s DNA. “To be honest, I wanted to identify it so I could figure out how to kill it,” she said. To her surprise, the DNA revealed that the slime was a species of rhizobia.

“What are rhizobia doing inside these trees?” Doty marveled.

The thing is, poplars don’t have root nodules. The bacteria Doty found were living throughout the trees, in the spaces between the cells, moving from the leaves to the roots and back again. Its presence made sense: Her poplar trees were growing in the rocky shoals of the Snoqualmie River in Washington state. Where were they getting their nitrogen? Certainly not from the rocks or the water, which was pure alpine snowmelt. It was only logical that the poplars — and maybe lots of other plants — had partnered with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in a manner previously unknown to science.

When Doty wrote up a paper describing her discovery, her peers were skeptical. Scientific journals rejected her work for three years — believing nitrogen fixation was limited to root nodules — until it was finally published in 2005. “I wanted to tell these reviewers, ‘Just go outside,” she recalled. “‘You find plants in sand bars, in land scraped bare by glaciers, in lava flows. You can see these things! Where do you think they get their nitrogen?’”

Doty would soon be vindicated. In the next decade, the tools that allow us to read DNA improved dramatically, revealing tiny worlds previously invisible to scientists. As a result, scientists began to realize that there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of microbes that had evolved to fix nitrogen for plants.

Doty’s discovery, along with many others (in science it’s never just one person), set the stage for the epiphany Temme and Tamsir had as they were walking, dejectedly, with their coffees eight years after Doty published her research. The pair admitted to each other that they were failing: It was just too hard to train plants to fix their own nitrogen. But what if they tried something simpler? Instead of engineering plants, what if they worked with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria? Farmers could plant a liquid probiotic along with their seeds, allowing the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to grow with the plants. “The solution was there all along, beneath our feet in the roots of every plant,” Temme said.

The two returned to their lab filled with new hope. It might have been among the most mood-altering coffee breaks in scientific history. Pivot pivoted. The company began prospecting for bacteria in buckets of soil from farms all over the United States and uncovered hundreds more nitrogen-fixing critters.

Other companies wound up on similar paths. Azotic Technologies started working with a bacterium found in sugarcane, while Intrinsyx Bio, based in Silicon Valley, began testing the bacteria Doty had discovered.

“The science is ready,” Doty said. “A lot of ag companies are pushing hard. I think we are at the point where we are ready for these products.”


After six months working on bacteria, Pivot Bio had something: A small seedling in a test tube, growing heartily on nitrogen supplied by bacteria. It was just a start, but this proof of concept was enough to raise millions of dollars in venture capital.

You can see the ripples of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria boom in an unremarkable office park in West Sacramento. The pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer built a 160,000 square-foot campus here in 2013 and devoted the space to creating a future where bacteria largely replace chemicals in farming. It’s hard for multinational conglomerates to move like nimble startups — so the company set aside nearly $700 million to fund moonshot startups. One of these, Joyn, launched last year and has already raised $100 million. (Pivot Bio has raised $87 million, Azotic has kept mum about its funding, while Intrinsyx Bio hasn’t started raising money.)

That giants like Bayer are trying to solve the nitrogen problem ups the odds that someone will succeed, because it’s not enough to simply identify a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. The startups also must master the art of marketing to farmers and the logistics of keeping a living organism perky while distributing. To knock out synthetic nitrogen, they’ll have to fit seamlessly into modern agriculture.

For four years, Pivot Bio has been testing its bacteria with farmers across the country. Every few months, buckets of dirt and baggies of corn roots arrive in the mail for the scientists at Pivot to examine.

The company doesn’t expect to replace all nitrogen fertilizer — not yet. But Pivot thinks it can replace one pass of a tractor (up and down the fields to apply fertilizer), decreasing the amount of time, equipment, and nitrogen that farmers must dedicate to each field.

Pivot Bio scientists look for bacteria in corn roots.Pivot Bio

Several sources cautioned me that nitrogen-fixing bacteria might only be the first step in tackling the nitrogen conundrum. That’s because, after decades of breeding corn to thrive with abundant fertilizer, our high-yielding crops might have lost the “cooperation genes” they need to work with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Pivot’s bacterium pumps out as much nitrogen fertilizer as it can. So I had to wonder, could it multiply out of control and accidentally make the pollution problem worse? I ran this question by Chris Voigt, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who oversaw Temme and Tasmir when they were working at UCSF.

The more engineered an organism is, he said, the less likely it is to spread. A bacteria that devotes its energy to fixing nitrogen is woefully maladapted for life in the wild. These bacteria are like those chickens bred to grow such massive breasts that they can barely stand up. “It’s essentially the same,” Voigt explains. “Instead of channeling all a chicken’s energy into its breast meat, you are forcing the cell to pump its energy into nitrogen fixation.”

All the startup founders I talked to are aware that even if farmers want these bacteria, eaters might not. Temme stressed that Pivot’s first bacterium doesn’t contain DNA from another species, but the company has tweaked the bacterial DNA so that it keeps fixing nitrogen even in the presence of other fertilizers, and that might be enough scare up anti-GMO protesters. Azotic hasn’t made any tweaks to its bacteria — but because the bacterium lives inside of plants, people might get nervous about eating a new bacterium in their corn. Peter Blezard, the CEO of Azotic, told me that the bacteria is approved as food grade, meaning risk analysts think it’s no more dangerous than probiotic yogurt.

Still, it’s worthwhile to be wary. A century ago, no one anticipated the environmental problems that industrial nitrogen would cause; instead, it was hailed as our deliverance from famine. If any of these companies finds a way to deliver us from industrial nitrogen, it would be the biggest agricultural breakthrough in a century. It would also fix one of the largest environmental disasters of modern times. Sure, it may lead to other problems in another 100 years, but it’s safe to say that wars over guano islands and nitrate mines won’t be one of them.

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    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, that was my immediate thought – once big Ag get their hands on this they will patent and commercialise its use and ensure its used to support, not replace, existing unsustainable practices.

      I can stand corrected on this – only proper full trials will tell – but I’d be sceptical that adding bacteria to soil would prove any better than good soil and cropping practice – i.e. constant mulching and multicropping with legumes as part the process. This reminds me a little of the corporate food industry encouraging the use of probiotics in peoples diet to try to make up for a lousy diet – it almost certainly doesn’t work, as no amount of ‘good’ bacteria will survive in a bad stomach environment. The way to a healthy gut biome is the use of prebiotics (i.e. good fibre rich food), and the way to a healthy soil and planet is the same principle.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I can imagine Big Gas and Oil buying these companies to suppress the technology to keep selling Haber-Bosch nitrogen and keep selling tractor fuel for pass after pass after pass.

          Then again, I can imagine Big Grain and/or Big Fertilizer (if there is a standalone Big-Fertilizer separate and apart from Big Gas and Oil) buying these companies and patents in order to set up vast nitro-fixing bacteria-farms where they feed industrial mass-quantities of sugar and mineral-nutrients to industrial mass-quantities of nitro-fixing bacteria, which they would then dry out and sell directly as industrial mass-quantities of Hi-Nitro FertiMeal. It could be applied “just like powdered or pelleted Haber-Bosch nitrogen” but it would be bio-derived nitrogen-delivery-vehicle, with its nitrogen fixed from the air. It would be a win for Big Bussiness which would disappoint some, but it would still be a loss . . . perhaps a lethal head-shot . . . against Big Gas and Oil specifically.

          1. SimonGirty

            Whichever, it WILL fit seamlessly. THEIR media hyenas will be AMAZED at Rooski financed luddite deplorables, beaten down resisting our glorious future. By the time everybody admits it’s been yet another failure, the transgenic pollen will make any protest moot. Lawsuits will ensue, against small-holder farmers who’s land got in the way, downwind. We’d read about it in EWR, but by then social media, blog aggregations & metasearch engines will only show ads (calling this organic).

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Transgenic pollen? I don’t think gene-edited and/or CRISPRed nitro-fixing bacteria would be able to release any transgenic pollen . . . or even any pollen at all.

              1. SimonGirty

                I was assuming this would be a novel, GE’d seed stock, inoculated with the bacteria? It would be a stacked traits seed, coated with the hungry little critters? They’ve been promising this, since BT Maize?

                1. drumlin woodchuckles

                  I will read the article harder-slower again, but on first reading I thought it was talking about nitro-fixing bacteria being innoculated onto the seeds of the crop plant to be planted. I will read it again to see if they are talking about GMOing the plants to get them to harbor the bacteria.

                  1. drumlin woodchuckles

                    I’ve read the article again and GMO’s were mentioned as a path-not-taken by one of the researchers after a short period of consideration.

                    So GMO pollen releases don’t seem to be a possible risk from these N-fixer bacterial approaches.

                    1. Duck1

                      China of course is a particularly large user of H–B nitrogen , que illustration.
                      I mean China is an industrial power but is it the poster child for excess, considering all the labor arbitrage carried out by the western capitalistsl

                    2. drumlin woodchuckles


                      Good point, especially the last sentence. China did not TAKE our industrial survival base. The International Free Trade Conspirators SENT our industrial survival base TO
                      China. ( And Mexico and Bangladesh and Vietnam and etc.)

      1. Oregoncharles

        Key sentence: “To knock out synthetic nitrogen, they’ll have to fit seamlessly into modern agriculture.”

        The best practices you describe, which potentially also cause the soil to store great amounts of carbon, are not “modern agriculture.” To return to those practices, we’d have to convince millions of farmers to do things very differently, which means both education against the interests of the chemical companies, and restructuring the farmers’ reward system. That is, they have to make a decent living and pay for their land, or it won’t happen.

  1. Adam1

    Our industrialized food supply system is so out of whack with the environment it’s only a matter of time that it leads to some ecological catastrophe. Even if you fix the Nitrogen fertilizer issue, we still haven’t fixed the Phosphorus problem. Every living thing is dependent upon it and yet we dump and flush it down the drain. Most phosphorus fertilizer is mined mineral and the estimate is that there is only about 80 years of minable mineral left with about 85% of the remaining supply in the most stable part of the world (not)… Morocco and West Sahara.

  2. SimonGirty

    I keep waiting for EZ-Gro GE hemp/ hops, transdermal CBD Snuggies, “naturally”CRISPR terpene scented? No need to bathe, cope with dope dealers or contrary folks’ disconcerting perspectives, at the local pub. Heck, they could grow to fit you, fertilized by… never mind. Back to work!

  3. berit

    Towards the end of the last century, around 1990, I read an article in the New York Herald Tribune about rice crop trials in India, trying out and fertilizing different strands of rice to find which would give top yields to feed nations dependent on the staple crop. Winding up the experiment, each strand sown in different plots, the scientists had leftover seeds. These diverse strands were sown together in an unfertilized plot. The then surprising results: The mixed rice-strand plot gave the greatest yield by far, even without the added cost of fertilizers. Same results are produced in forestry. Naturally diverse forests are healthier and stronger than monocultures… “The melting pot” comes to mind, said in school days long ago to explain US vitality, productivity and expansion on the world scene…

  4. TG

    Indeed. It’s rare to find someone who realizes how much we depend on the Haber process, and that we can’t just do without it by ‘going organic.’ Kudos.

    But Malthus did NOT predict a global catastrophe, sorry, that’s wrong. Malthus described how the world works, then and now. When people try to have more children than they can support, this creates not wealth but brutal crushing poverty. When the people OF A SPECIFIC COUNTRY try to double their population every 20 years, once there is no longer an open frontier, before too much time has passed they will fail – they have always, always failed. Because exponential growth is just too powerful.

    The poverty of 18th century China, or of modern Bangladesh and Pakistan – that is what Malthus ‘predicted.’ And it’s established historical fact.

  5. Amfortas the hippie

    from a lifelong organic pioneer…this is the operative sentence: “To knock out synthetic nitrogen, they’ll have to fit seamlessly into modern agriculture.”

    It’s stupidly simple to get enough nitrogen in one’s soil…it’s called “Manure”…specifically, “composted manure”.
    But the way this must be done is incompatible with the way “modern agriculture” works.
    Monocropping, giant machinery, excessive irrigation, and the Profits Uber Alles! mindset…among other things…make it hard to Grow Good Soil…which is the fundamental goal of Organic-Sustainable Ag.
    Cover cropping with legumes(I like ordinary Pinto Beans for this purpose, and black eyed peas, and crowder peas…all tasty additions to our diet)..but for big “farmers”, that requires additional machinery/practices that cut into the bottom line…much simpler and cheaper(under the skewed criteria used by “modern ag”) to pour on the Haber Ammonia…killing the microbia that might have managed to start up in the field.
    I have envisioned, and tried unsuccessfully to lobby the city and county, a methane digester sewer plant(federal and other funds are already in the works for a new, lagoon based, system, here)…using not only the one city’s sewer output, but the manure from the 4 local feedlots((currently spread raw on rich rancher’s pastures)…generating natural gas for local power, and abundant, sterile compost for all the former farmland around here.
    Remember that “natural gas” is a marketing term originating 100+ years ago when early oil/gas co’s found that folks were averse to using “sewer gas”.
    I couldn’t sell the idea, even with the abundant grant money available.
    My own house has a composting toilet(13 big plastic barrels, rotated into the toilet monthly; when full, set out, covered, in a future orchard-space, for a year…then dumped out and seeded with a native grass/wildflower mixture) when I can keep up with the monthly switchout(wife’s cancer has interfered..process takes about 20 minutes), there’s no smell…and we use oak leaves for 9 months out of the year for added carbon, pine shavings for the rest.
    urine is diverted to a built wetland with a cypress, a few willows and some cattails.
    Loophole in Texas law says I didn’t even need a permit…a regular septic system, due to the shape of our part of the place, would have cost $8K.
    I’ve talked a little with a local plumber about the possibility of commodifying this…but my system is pretty ad hoc and cracker-rigged…and requires a monthly hands-on experience with one’s own “product”…which is likely a turn-off for most.
    sorry so long and rambling…I am an evangelist for this sort of thing.

    1. The Rev Kev

      You might be the guy to ask. I have seen images of farms from space that to say the least look weird. If you go to you will see an example at the top of the page and further down you will see an image of a region from Nebraska that is mostly set out this way. My question is whether these sorts of farms are common or not and just what happens to all the land in between those circles. The whole setup just looks – off.

      1. Mel

        Been like that for 40 years, at least. The radial lines in the fields are irrigation pipes, connected to central pivots. They roll around and around dishing out water.

      2. Amfortas the hippie

        lol. didn’t even hafta visit that site.
        That’s Center Pivot irrigation…often(depending on the crop) a LIPA(“low impact, precision application”–where the spray is gentle, and below the leaf canopy.)
        It’s more expensive to set up, but apparently saves on water.
        There are a few of those around here, left over from the Peanut Days…now used for alfalfa.
        Most folks around here use the old fashioned long rolling lines with hundreds of sprinklers(neighbor’s behind my house is almost 3/4 of a mile long.)…just broadcasting the water.
        inefficient…a lot of the water thus applied is lost to wind/evaporation.
        The big circles I have seen up close…the margins pretty much go to waste. But I could see how one could easily apply permaculture to those areas…although room would be taken up by leaving room for turning machinery around.

        1. rd

          We could save the pollinators simply by having a good native grass and wildflower fallow area outside the pivots. That would be a surprising amount of land that could be returned to prairie at no cost to the farmers.

    2. johnnygl

      Ha! I grabbed the same quote that you did!

      ” To knock out synthetic nitrogen, they’ll have to fit seamlessly into modern agriculture.”

      This mentality is the problem. It’s modern agriculture that needs to change. Synthetic nitrogen only has a business model becuase modern agriculture has been shaped to suit it.

      The idea that we can solve pollution problems with a handy little squirt of solution is naive at best.

      I’m also tired of tha hand-waive against organic agriculture with phrases like, “we can’t possibly feed everyone without chemical fertilizers and without using up all the land on planet earth.” are these guys even counting the lost productivity of massive dead-zones everywhere???? How many opportunities for aquaculture are being passed up because “too much risk and low margins and too much federal subsidies being thrown at corn and wheat.”

      I suspect we can feed people just fine. Maybe not without changing diets (not a bad thing) and certainly not without some genuine creativity involved. We might even have to sacrifice some land that’s covered in grass or asphalt….imagine horrors like that!!!

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        we were gone from this place for 8 years, so I’m just getting up the infrastructure(meaning good, rich, alive soil, in raised beds), but for most of my life, my family’s little farm(moved to Hill Country 30 years ago) have produced a lot of what we eat.
        I really like the ideas around French Intensive, as in the concentric orbit around Paris when they still had horse/mule drawn transportation.
        add in what we’ve learned since about biology, from microbe to plant to cow, as well as all manner of ecological lessons, and we could certainly feed ourselves.
        the barrier is “industry standard” as well as monopoly and far too many vested interests who favor the current system(even including people who own aircraft fleets to deliver perishables across the globe, and finance and on and on)
        Cuba’s experience after the fall of USSR is one of my favorite stories…too exhausted to hunt for link…but the gist: Cuba found itself near starvation after soviet imports stopped. Apollo style project to rapidly transition to organic/sustainable autarky/ food security.
        rejiggered landowning systems, as well as food markets, etc…led to a worldwide shortage of Mules!
        Now, last I looked, Cuba is food-secure/independent.
        Considering the wastage built in to our system, including all the prophylactic antibiotic usage, and even the algal blooms/dead zones…and myriad other “externalities”….we’re dumb not to follow Cuba’s example.

        1. JohnnyGL

          I think the documentary you are referring to is called, “the power of community”. Yes, Cuba’s experience has lessons about what can be done, but they’ve still got to import a lot, especially staple crops like rice, so it’s important not to over-sell what they’ve achieved. That said, they’re not done innovating and experimenting, so there could be more upside, yet.

          Also, regarding rapid transitions in agriculture….BBC had a video series awhile back about trying to re-create the shock ramp up of British agricultural production during WWII, when they were cut off from the rest of the Empire. Specifically, farmers in Britain had shifted toward high-value commodities like meat and animal products and had to shift back towards production of staples like wheat. It was interesting watching farmers try to get old equipment working and switching from pasture fields over to wheat fields as quickly as possible.

      2. Darius

        The answer is permaculture. It would put a lot of people back to work in labor-intensive organic agriculture. It also would be a massive lowering of living standards as currently understood. People would have to get used to an older rustic lifestyle. The resistance from big ag would be fierce.

        1. polecat

          I’m more then half way there .. time to dry some moarrr raisins and can another batch of pasta sauce .. All courtesy of the hens & the plant clippins

          The drudgery, I tells ya !!

  6. Sean

    One quick note: There is an energy tradeoff in biological (bacterial) nitrogen fixation, which the article does mention. Sugars that could have potentially been turned into starch in e.g. corn kernels instead go to feed bacteria because nitrogen fixation is very energy (sugar) intensive process. Just wanted to point out that if a field of non-legumes “spend” more of their sugar on getting nitrogen, or any nutrient, that field will probably have lower yield than one where the plants can get their nitrogen for a much lower sugar “cost” from the soil. TL;DR: In future crops receiving the bacteria they’ve developed, yield and biological nitrogen fixation would almost certainly be inversely correlated.

  7. urblintz

    Wow…. Fritz Haber… the guy’s also responsible for those WW favorites, chlorine gas and Zyklon B… won a Nobel Prize…

    It is said he was haunted by all that…

  8. Carolinian

    Decades ago my local water company foolishly allowed houses to be built around our reservoir and they’ve just been adding chemicals to control the algae that resulted from all the lawn fertilizer runoff. So suburbanites and not just farmers are polluting the world with nitrogen.

    At any rate thanks for the very interesting science post. Totally unrelated (except that Halloween is coming up), here’s another interesting if gruesome science story.

  9. Samuel Conner

    This may be a bit icky, but from a “element conservation” perspective, it seems to me that a good bit of the fixed nitrogen required to produce the food that sustains a person is excreted by that person in the form of urine. We dilute it with clean drinking water (well, in my town, with radioactive drinking water) to make it (along with the solid waste, of course) mobile so we can centrally collect it, through appalling expensive (and increasingly dilapidated) infrastructure, and treat it in order release it into the surface waters. IOW, we simply throw it away, and spend a lot of effort and material resources to do so.

    It isn’t just big ag, that is a big issue. It’s also “big sewage.”

    The ancients knew what to do with their solid and liquid waste. It fed the crops. That doesn’t scale properly to our current ag methods, but perhaps it could for approaches to ag production that are more local to the consumers.

    Victor Hugo’s wonderful multi-page “rant” in Les Miserables on the “bleeding wound in the body of France” that was the sewers of Paris could perhaps be usefully updated to our present situation.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      (see my post above)
      Urine, when it leaves the body, is sterile…or mostly so, depending.
      left to sit for a day, it’s pretty good fertilizer, applied to root zone and diluted appropriately for a given plant.(see: ). My cypress and willows are lovely, where the diverted pee goes…and no smell, at all.
      One must be careful with Humanure ( )…even composted for a year like I do, I wouldn’t use it for root crops…let alone as a foliar spray like I do with cow and horse manure(composted)
      (BTW, disease transmission is one of the main reasons I don’t use pig-sh$t…too close physiologically(see: China and Flu))
      Our humanure goes into the pastures, and/or orchards, vineyard and future-orchards/vineyards.
      I wanted to build a digester….but grokked that I didn’t have the requisite skills for dealing with flammable gasses. In a digester, the secondary end product(after methane) is sterile compost…so in that case, I’d be less leery of using it for regular garden soil…although prudence would lead me to get a decent microscope.
      when I used to be able to canoe the Llano River, the place where the creek that runs past the landfill/city sewer ponds empties into the river is choked with algae…the entire downstream part of the creek is always that sickly green.
      I think often about the wastage of all that fertilizer.

      1. Harold

        Maybe it is but I have my doubts that it is sterile if you have a kidney or urinary tract infection. Also, isn’t modern human urine full of hormones, tranquilizers, anti-biotics and other drugs? Or is that just animal urine from factory farms? Just asking.

        1. Samuel Conner

          Per the humanure handbook, hot composting will render humanure safe for garden use. The bacteria that can survive this process are not pathogenic.

          1. Amfortas the hippie

            should be a caveat to all such statements:”…if the composting process works/is done properly”.
            There’s some screw-up-room, there…which is why i err on the side of prudence.

            as for UTI’s, etc…that was the reason for my own caveat, above.
            Regarding all the crap that we put into ourselves(rocket fuel, pesticides, pharms)…I honestly do not know.
            someone with a better lab, and more specific education than I should look into it.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          Human urine would contain various human drugs . . . like antidepressants, statins, calcium channel blockers, diuretics, etc. etc.

      2. Samuel Conner

        Thanks; I went directly to comment and so did not see your post.

        I love the Humanure handbook, not that I have taken steps in that direction, yet.

        Have thought about trying to build an aerobic self-heating sterilizer for the solids. With enough insulation and the right air flow (enough to supply the aerobic bacteria but not too much to carry excess heat away), it may be possible to get it to heat up to the kill point of the non-thermophiles. It’s a messy business and the handbook’s approach, which is like that of ageing horse manure in a confined heap, would not work in my setting (neighbors).

        I need to master hot composting of garden waste first, and then perhaps I’ll turn to this more challenging question.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          I got my design from an old man in Arizona who ended up getting his plans installed in the state parks.
          basically a latrine/outhouse style seat and shelf, with a removable barrel under it, a funnel for diverting the pee*, and a bug screen to keep out bugs.
          do yer bidness, throw in some shavings or dry leaves, and you end up with dry poop in carbonate material, that…after cooking in the sun, with a lid, for a year, looks like compost to my trained eye.
          I doubt that it’s all that aerobic, but it’s slow, Dry Composting…which is different than what we’re used to.
          It’s working well for us(even wife prefers it, even now with a colostomy(no splashing,lol) after 3 years.
          …and for our pasture/orchard purposes.
          I no longer even own a plunger.
          I put on a bandanna highwayman mask, and wear gloves when fooling with it, of course…and then have a bath.
          but it’s a whole lot less messy than fixing regular sewerage systems.
          It can be intimidating to visitors, though.
          My boys’ friends(even the eldests girlfriends) think it’s neat, after I give the 5-10 minute class.

          * separating liquid from solid is essential to prevent smells, and to keep it relatively nonpathogenic.
          pee goes into part of an old, unconnected gulley, along with the shower-water to dilute, where the cypress, cattail and willow are. I’ll be adding a black walnut or two around the perimeter of this built bog at some point.
          when I go down into it to clear/trim or to obtain water samples, I have noticed no mosquito larvae…so I wonder if the BT Dunks have gone native.
          (we don’t have cable,lol)

  10. rd

    Amazonian Indians and some other cultures figured out how to use charcoal to amend soils and make them much more fertile for long periods of time to reduce loss of fertility without high added fertilizer demand. The technique is called Terra Preta:

    When planting things, I often throw some charcoal briquets in the bottom of the hole, squirt some fish fertilizer on it to charge the charcoal with nutrients, and add a bit of seed starter with bacterial and mychorizza fungi spores to the soil. It seems to help the plants quite a bit in the first few years. My own mini version of terra preta.

    Also for lawns, if you mow 3 inches high, mulch the grass clippings and leave them on the lawn, you get enough nitrogen to keep the lawn green. My lawn is always nice and green except in month long drought and I haven’t fertilized in over 20 years. Lightning also fixes nitrogen in the clouds that comes down in the rain and snow. Dust and pollutants in the air also bring in an array of nutrients, including nitrogen, so rain and snow provide quite a bit of fertilizer.

      1. JohnnyGL

        It’s definitely up there in terms of land use….but prob can’t compete with corn on tonnage/biomass. Corn makes a lot of material during it’s life-cycle.

      1. polecat

        That’s what I do. Each time before I start up the wood stove, I cull out as many cold charcoal bits and pieces as possible, and went winter is over, I have anywhere from 2 to 5 gal. of charcoal that I pound down into various smaller aggregates, which then get added, along with polecat’s special kitchen/chicken compost blend, to our raised beds before spring planting.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      careful with your charcoal sourcing.
      this is dry country (until a couple of years ago,lol), so it’s hard to burn paper trash or the ever accumulating brush. So I’d often end up burning down to large coals, then hitting it with a sprinkler.
      That makes excellent charcoal for terra prieta, it turns out.
      I sprinkle it everywhere.(fish emulsion is a nice touch!)
      along similar lines, when the boys were in diapers, I worried about the landfill(still went, of course).
      So I experimented with tree planting and burying a diaper under the rootball. It worked awesomely, but I have no idea what leaches out of those things.
      Started pecan trees and a bunch of oaks that way…where they rely on rainfall.
      control trees didn’t make it.
      sorry for being prolific, today,lol.
      I can talk this shop all day.

  11. juliania

    Oh gee.

    I like the concept of diverting from artificial nitrogen fertilizers, which are basically what we got from the munitions industry so an undeclared war on the living soil that desperately needs regeneration. That’s where progress can be and is being made on independent organic farms but that’s progress on a small scale that can’t or shouldn’t be incorporated. Let us go back to co-operatives, profitable for the individual farmers, small scale. Oh no, can’t do that. What we need (so they say) is something the mega corporations can glom onto and force farmers to use while they pocket the profit.

    Please, you big guys, leave the plants and the soil to do their thing. Oh, and get rid of those mega factory animal farms too! Unless you can cooperate with nature, the way we deplorables do, it is all going to come to naught but profit for the snakeoil salesmen. Who should just fold up their tents and leave.

    Fascinating stuff about nitrogen fixing plants. Let them do their thing. Clean up the algae if you wish, we’ll love you for that. But leave mother earth alone.

  12. Shane

    Most plants in most ecosystems are not limited by access to nitrogen. (Geologically) historically low carbon dioxide levels, lack of water and lack of light are more likely limiters in natural ecosystems. In cropping land when you remove all the competition by logging forests and killing weeds, then irrigating, the next limiting input is nitrogen and phosphorus usually. The Haber process basically takes energy from natural gas, uses it to create fixed nitrogen and saves the plant a bit of energy (and the need for a complete ecosystem with healthy soil) to supply its nitrogen requirements. Getting microbes to do it for the plant will have an energetic cost since the plant supplies the sugars and that will limit growth somewhat. The biggest downside with synthetic fertiliser is that the plant over time loses its ability to interface with the soil microbiology, which itself gets deranged by the excess nitrogen applied. Modern crop breeding is mostly concerned with synthetic fertiliser response and optimisation for machinery. Staple crops used to grow in suitable regions with little to no fertiliser application, just integration with crop and livestock rotations, but much of the genetics, techniques and soil quality has been lost since then, so if we ever tried to go back to feeding even a billion people without synthetic inputs we would fail miserably.

  13. RBHoughton

    The danger of disrupting markets, as Mr Musk discovered, is that the profiteers who operate markets all cling together. A faith in competitive capitalism is the last thing on their minds. So if this scheme has any prospects of success in a market-based economy like USA / UK it will have to allow the big Haber-process nitrogen producers to take control and set prices.

  14. kev4321

    I think that rhizobia fixing nitrogen for non-legume plants has been known for some time. I read years ago that some grasses can do it . At least it shows an effort by the capitalists to profit from the agricultural pollution disaster, definitely an improvement over mortgage fraud, missiles, and overpriced electronics. You have to admire the plucky Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding efforts to genetically engineer plants into legumes, even after repeated failures. But I caution anyone against getting their hopes up, since it appears there is some actual soil care needed and possibly even manual labor. And yes, inquiring minds want to know: “What are rhizobia doing inside these trees?” Doty marveled. LOL

  15. zer0

    So basically, these “great minds” thought it best to use GM bacteria to fixate nitrogen? Why does everyone turn to genetic engineering when the solution has always been simple? Perhaps selling shit (literally) isnt that attractive on paper.

    Genetic engineering is just another step away from the natural solution: using human excrement (deemed ‘black fertilizer’) kept in large vats with bacteria that naturally break down the waste into more than just nitrogen, but usable potash, iron, etc. In fact, it is so good at fertilizing that Colorado buys New York’s sewage waste which they ship by train across the country.

    Genetic engineering just means the following -> more monocultures -> extreme disease risk (to the plants not humans per se) -> potential for genes to change (especially in bacteria) -> eventually makes its way to the wild where it wreaks havoc. The researcher in the article stating that these bacteria are like “chickens bred with huge breasts so they can barely stand” is literally the antithesis of what bacterium are: the worlds most rapidly reproducing and hardiest organisms.

    Also, one HUGE stumbling block: the nitrogen in the air is not concentrated enough to supply an entire plant, because if it was, then the Earth would have already evolved plants that draw nitrogen from the air (that aren’t lichen/moss). One corn cob has around 100 calories in it. Simple math would show you the energy the bacteria would need to create to break down the nitrogen needed to supply one corn stalk is immense. It is why the guy who spent 43 years on the problem said its impossible. It is, in a way impossible. Conservation of energy is here to stay. And why not kill two birds with one stone by utilizing sewage waste?

    From what I see, this genetic engineering isnt anywhere close to solving the problem. Instead, it seems to add more questions to the mix. And releasing RAPIDLY MULTIPLYING (think rapid potential of genetic change) genetically altered bacteria is ABSURDLY STUPID. In the lab, my wife has seen bacteria change its genetic makeup in 4 hours. 4 hours. And they want this bacteria to stay stable for perpetuity? Wont happen.

  16. Knute Rife

    About 50 years ago, the USDA started “encouraging” farmers (through lending requirements) to start specializing in crop production and leave livestock to the big, centralized operators. If you don’t have livestock, you don’t have manure, and you have to buy commercial fertilizer. Another item you have to buy retail to produce crops you get to sell at raw material prices. Welcome to another episode of “Small Farm Death Spiral.”

  17. drumlin woodchuckles

    I have mentioned farmer Gabe Brown of North Dakota before. Here is an ultra-short little 7 minute video
    he and his son made about their operation where they give a short history of how they developed it the way it now is, and where they make claims about what they are achieving.

    They have farmed for years without any Haber and without any Bosch and they claim to be harvesting higher yields than their Haber-Bosch neighbors. They say they let their customers and also scientists visit their land to see how they do what they do. If their claims are false, someone will eventually challenge them on it, one would think.

    Here is the video.

  18. Kaleberg

    The Australians are considering an alternate approach. They are working on using surplus wind power from their south coast to convert atmospheric nitrogen and seawater hydrogen into ammonia which can be liquified and shipped using existing infrastructure.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Will this ammonia be used to convey Hydrogen to a power plant where it can be stripped off the ammonia and burned separately as pure Hydrogen to generate power? ( I believe the mechanism would be to force an extra Hydrogen onto the ammonia molecule to turn it into an ammonium ion). That way the ammonia-ammonium could be forever cycled . . . ammonia –> ammonium –> ammonia –> ammonium –> and etc. and round and round). Using the surplus solar power to strip Hydrogen off the dihydrogen monoxide in seawater . . . jam each free H onto an ammonia . . . ship the ammonium to the power plant target . . . strip the H back off the ammonium . . . re-oxidise 2 H’s to every one O for heat to turn turbines . . . and release the dihydrogen monoxide gas into the atmosphere.

      Or is this just another way to make Haber-Bosch ammonia to use as an artificial N fertilizer, with all the problems that causes?

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