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This Startup Engineers Crops That Fertilize Themselves

By Tessa Love

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.