Boosting fertilizer efficiency to feed a growing population and save the planet

Written by
B. Rose Huber
B. Rose Huber, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Nov. 23, 2015

Global population is expected to increase by 2 to 3 billion by mid-century, demanding increased food production and raising serious concerns about climate change, biodiversity and environmental degradation. But recent research led by Princeton University shows that more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizers can address both environmental priorities and human food needs, thus reducing the tension between these two issues.

Today, more than half of the world’s population is nourished by food grown with fertilizers containing synthetic nitrogen. Nitrogen fertilizers allow more productivity per acre and can minimize the amount of land needed to feed a growing planet. Overuse of fertilizers, however, can be destructive, with excess nitrogen ending up as potent greenhouse gas or other forms of nitrogen pollution.

Princeton researchers are among the first to provide a global analysis of “nitrogen use efficiency” — a measure of the amount of nitrogen fertilizer a plant takes in to grow versus what is left behind as pollution. By estimating the current level of nitrogen efficiency and identifying strategies that will help farmers improve their fertilizer usage, the study points to opportunities for significant and wide-ranging environmental benefits.

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