One hundred years after the discovery of a workable process for synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer was discovered by the German chemist Fritz Haber (winning him the 1918 Nobel Prize), a new breakthrough that allows dissemination of fertilizer at half the cost is sweeping through Bangladesh and other developing countries, bringing hope in the face of severe food shortages, reports the New York Times.
Chemical fertilizer was one of the prime movers, along with high-yield varieties of grain, behind the Green Revolution, a mid-twentieth century movement aimed at eradicating world hunger. The new grain varieties were mostly the work of American plant breeder Norman Borlaug who won the Nobel Prize in 1970. The movement had great success though it never fulfilled its promise for a variety of reasons, including administrative corruption in targeted countries and the increasingly high cost of fertilizer, which requires a great deal of fossil fuel to produce. Given this rising cost, as well as spot shortages, and the growing population and widespread drought in many areas, food shortages around the world have truly begun to reach crisis proportions.
The breakthrough, which is called urea deep placement, is more of a new delivery mechanism than a new formulation. The nitrogen, in the form of urea, is compacted into briquettes which are placed several inches below the soil surface rather than the traditional granules that were designed to be sprinkled on the ground. This allows it to release the nitrogen more gradually and effectively and also to resist the heavy rains, common in these areas which often wash away the granular fertilizers before they are fully released. As a result, “farmers are using nearly 40 percent less urea, and yet they are producing nearly 20 percent more rice,” says Amit Roy, the president of the International Fertilizer Development Center, a nonprofit research group that helped develop the technology.
Use of the briquettes was driven by the rising price of nitrogen fertilizer–its market price tripled in 2007. The early-adopting Bangladeshi farmers have buried the briquettes under 1.7 million acres of farmland so far, and this amount may grow to 12 million acres in the coming years, thanks to support from the and Bangladeshi government, according to Roy.
This success has not gone unnoticed in other countries with similar plights. Numerous delegations have come to observe and several trials, in Africa – as well as in Laos and Vietnam – are now underway.
The application of the briquettes is highly labor-intensive, making it ideal for small farms in areas like these that lack mechanization. Work is apparently underway to adapt this technology to larger scale farming operations as well.
This all comes at a time when nitrogen fertilizers are under fire for their impact on water quality due to agricultural runoff. The use of the briquettes should reduce this impact though it will likely not eliminate it entirely. There are those who feel that agriculture needs to completely switch to organic fertilizers which are gaining in popularity, though the question of whether organic farming truly can feed the entire world population is still being debated.