Copyright ©2017 Green Matters. All rights reserved.
Joshua Anderson Slate/Pexels
This Startup Engineers Crops That Fertilize Themselves

A genetic engineering startup has developed a technology with the power to transform agriculture: a self-fertilizing plant. To understand why this is such a big deal, let's take a step back. Fertilizer is a big part of growing our food. And while fertilizer replenishes the soil with all kinds of nutrients plants need to thrive, the most important compound that fertilizer provides – and the most difficult to cultivate – is nitrogen, or nitrate. 

Before the industrial revolution, farmers relied on compost and crop rotation to cycle the much-needed element back into the soil. But when farms evolved from small, biodiverse ranches to huge monocrops, the need for nitrogen fertilizer increased, and the circumstances that naturally created that nitrogen decreased. So, scientists began manufacturing it themselves. 

The US fertilizer industry increasingly relies on natural gas extracted by fracking—the process of extracting gas from rock formations by injecting them with high-pressure water spiked with chemicals. This in itself is harmful to the environment, but it doesn't stop there. Excess nitrogen from crops seeps into streams and rivers, feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life, while emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon, add to climate change. Additionally, the overuse of the fertilizer causes the destruction of organic matter in soil, increasing the demand for fertilizer and trapping farmers in a vicious cycle.  

On top of that, the U.S. is the number one consumer of nitrogen fertilizer. With just five percent of the world’s population, we consume about 12 percent of global nitrogen-fertilizer production. And corn—which according to the USDA “requires the most nitrogen per acre” of any crop—remains at the center of our agriculture, covering 30 percent of farmland each year.

So back to this self-fertilizing plant. If we could do away with the need for these destructive fossil fuel-based fertilizer, the environment would be in much better shape. And that's exactly what the startup has in mind.

“The idea is that it would be able to let you reduce–and maybe ultimately replace–synthetic nitrogen fertilizer,” Jason Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Gingko Bioworks – the company behind the unnamed startup – told Fast Company

The startup will do this by harnessing microbes that live on a few crops, including beans and peanuts, that allow the plants to fertilize themselves and bring the same capability to plants that can’t – in particular corn, wheat, and rice, which together make up more than 55 percent of fertilizer use.

“Microbes that are living in the roots of the peanut plant essentially run the exact same nitrogen to ammonia gas conversion [as a chemical plant] but they do it right there in the roots–so they make the fertilizer much more efficiently, and just for the plant,” Kelly said. “Of course, you don’t need that big chemical plant, you don’t need that energy use if you have the microbe doing it right there on the spot.”

Gingko Bioworks has partnered with Bayer to make these self-fertilizing plants. Bayer has an "extensive collection of microbes" that “play well” with particular crops, according to Fast Company. Gingko Bioworks will bring those plants into the lab, print new DNA and design new microbes that will fix nitrogen on crops like corn.

The plants will eventually reduce the cost and labor of adding fertilizer to a crop, but Kelly believes it's the consumer benefit that will make this technology widely accepted. 

“There is a big consumer benefit in this case, and I think that changes the dynamic quite a bit,” he told Fast Company.

FoodNew 'Spoiler Alert' App Works To Minimize Food Waste

Spoiler Alert is a new company that creates software to connect organizations like food producers, food banks, and pantries. This system allows everyone to communicate in real time and keep food waste down by getting it to the right people quickly. 

6 days ago
FoodFree Calculator Helps You Prevent Food Waste On Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is delicious, but the estimated food waste every year is damaging the planet. You can make a difference with a little planning and the help of a free customizable calculator.

2 weeks ago
FoodThis Startup Wants To Build Massive Indoor Farms Near Every Major City

Plenty is an indoor farming company hoping to solve the world’s fresh produce shortage by building a massive indoor vertical farm next to every major city worldwide.

2 weeks ago
FoodThese Smart Greenhouses Produce Clean Energy And Sustainable Food

Innovative new solar panels that can collect the sun's energy and still let the light pass through are creating smart solar greenhouses that actually boost plant productivity.

2 weeks ago
Stay Green
Sign up for our daily newsletter