Flemish researchers develop method to reduce nitrogen use in agriculture

Researchers at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and Ghent University (UGent) have developed a method to make natural micro-organisms absorb less nitrogen in their fields. The new method would allow farmers to apply less nitrogen to their crops and could be a big step towards eventually phasing out nitrogen, public broadcaster VRT reports on Thursday.

Crops need nitrogen in the soil to grow. But crops in the field face competition from microorganisms, such as certain bacteria and archaea, which convert nitrogen into nitrites and nitrates. "Farmers often apply extra fertiliser to make sure their crops have enough nitrogen to produce a maximum yield. This has negative consequences for the environment," VIB said in a press release.

There are currently products that target the nitrification process in bacteria, but no solution has been found so far for archaea, an ancient type of micro-organism. A research group at VIB and UGent has now developed two test methods to identify nitrification inhibitors in archaea. Nearly 50,000 molecules were tested to see if they could be used to target nitrification by archaea.

20 per cent reduction

"If we can inhibit the action of the bacteria and the archaea together, we will have come a long way," says project coordinator Hans Motte. A further 20 per cent reduction in nitrification could be achieved by doing so. Motte calls the results of the study "very hopeful" and says these methods would give farmers the tools "to really reduce nitrogen use in agriculture".

"If we can inhibit the action of the bacteria and the archaea together, we will have come a long way"

The next step is to put research results into practice and develop a concrete, usable product. When exactly a product will be on the market is not yet clear, but according to VIB, "it will not be tomorrow".

Last week, the Flemish government approved new legislation aimed at reducing emissions of ammonia, a source of nitrogen, by 40 per cent by 2030. The long-awaited nitrogen deal has been heavily criticised by the Flemish agricultural sector.

In the wider context of Europe-wide protests for better prices and less stringent standards, this week's farmer protests in Flanders have largely been aimed at the regional government's much-debated nitrogen deal.


#FlandersNewsService | © BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND

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