Has a Startup Solved Agriculture's Nitrogen Puzzle?

Has a Startup Solved Agriculture's Nitrogen Puzzle?

Peter Blezard believes the most significant technological leap in agriculture for 100 years is waiting on the cusp of farmland. According to Blezard, founder and CEO of UK-based biotech company Azotic Technologies, nitrogen fixation across all types of crops has arrived. If he’s correct, agriculture may have a groundbreaking opportunity to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by 50% in all major global food crops within a decade.

Azotic has licensed a patented seed coating technology from the University of Nottingham and developed N-Fix, a product based on a beneficial bacterium (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) that builds a symbiotic relationship with plants allowing the substitution of soil-derived nitrogen with atmospheric nitrogen. Pared down, N-Fix reduces crop dependency on nitrogen fertilizer. Ted Cocking, world-renowned plant cell scientist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham, invented the technology that led to N-Fix.  

Field trials

Azotic has completed three seasons of field trials in oilseed rape, wheat and pasture grass (as well as four trials in amenity turf), and achieved 50% nitrogen fertilizer reduction in all of those crops. What’s the differentiator with N-Fix technology? It’s intracellular and functions inside plant cells, according to Blezard. “This makes our technology unique and it’s much more efficient for fixing nitrogen inside the cell. It moves to the nitrogen rich chloroplasts that photosynthesize, producing sugars that provide the bacterium with the energy source it needs to fix nitrogen, which it delivers to the cell. The bacterium colonizes every crop we’ve worked with, and I’m talking about any crop type – not just legumes. ”

G. diazotrophicus is presently used in foodstuffs and cosmetics. It is part of the vinegar producing family of bacteria and found in sugarcane, but Azotic has isolated a very unique strain. N-Fix can be utilized through liquid inoculants, freeze dry powders, and seed coatings.

Azotic will conduct multiple contract research trials in major row crops in the United States in 2015, with plans to move forward through U.S. grower trials in 2016. “Once the contract research trials are finished, we’ll have independent validated evidence available,” Blezard notes. “We’re working with USDA at Penn State University as well, and they are very keen on a new nitrogen source. This is a benchmark win-win for agriculture and the environment, and it will reduce fertilizer bills for farmers and reduce nitrate runoff and nitrous oxide emissions.”

Non-legume crops

Blezard’s confidence is bolstered by a heavyweight voice in agriculture, Malcolm Elliott, founding director, The Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security; and editor in chief, Agriculture and Food Security. “It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this work for the future of humankind. I grieve that Borlaug himself did not live to see the way that Azotic Technologies Ltd. pressed forward with Ted Cocking's work and demonstrated that their symbiotic bacterium can fix enough nitrogen to reduce, by 50%, the need for expensive nitrogen fertilizer to be added to the crop.”

Azotic is in discussion with several major industry partners and governments interested in N-Fix, according to Blezard, with an initial focus on canola, corn, grass, potatoes, barley and wheat. “This is a groundbreaking technology and we’re looking for partners in the U.S. and worldwide to help take this technology to market.”

In testing, Azotic has introduced the bacterium to 14 crops and reportedly can prove colonization in each one. Blezard describes it as a true, food grade symbiotic bacteria that does no harm and serves as a biofertilizer.

Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, in his acceptance speech upon winning the Nobel Prize in 1970, said microbes – not fertilizer – were the means to feed the world. Are nitrogen-fixing bacteria now a reality in non-legume crops? “There are always those in the agriculture industry that think this is too good to be true and remain to be convinced, regardless of the evidence,” Blezard says. “I just want farmers to know there is an option coming that’s an alternative to the current nitrogen program. All we’re doing is giving a nature a helping hand.”

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Spell Check

Lindsay D
Queenstown, MD
3/31/2015 08:33 AM

  I think this technology has the potential to have a positive impact on the environment by requiring less commercial nitrogen application in areas experiencing water quality issues. Fixed nitrogen is much less volatile than commercial Nitrogen and can be slow released to meet plant needs. Imagine being able to meet 50% of your corn crop's Nitrogen needs from the air! This would take a lot of pressure off of farmers to improve nutrient use efficiency in order to clean up their local waterways. From a Chesapeake Bay farmer, I hope this technology moves forward and works.

cokato, MN
3/18/2015 04:21 PM

  tec is great and not knocking it down but will the real big fert suppliers really let this happen

West Liberty, IA
3/19/2015 08:31 AM

  I'm with Ken. Wouldn't change a thing for farmers. They would just increase the price to reflect the amount saved by not using the N.. maybe more. In the end, no savings for the farmer.


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