The revolutionary method to grow food without using fertilizers


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Three times a year, Vietnamese farmers take rice seedlings to be transplanted to paddy fields.
By 2050, the world population is projected to reach the 9.800 million. With a a limited amount of land and intense cultivation causing irreversible environmental damage . ¿ C how can we feed to The world without destroying all its natural resources? It’s the transplant season in all of Vietnam. Farmers everywhere, with their typical conical hats, dip the germinated rice seeds deep into the mud. Rice cultivation is essential for Vietnam’s food supply and economy, but that thriving industry has an environmental cost. Farmers depend on nitrogen-based fertilizers to increase performance. But excess nitrogen can end up pouring and polluting rivers and oceans, as well as evaporating into the atmosphere.

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In the last decade, women have taken over the work in the field, while men have gone to the cities to earn more working in construction.
After traveling two hours southeast of the vibrant capital of Hanoi, we arrived at Tien Hai. This modest peasant village is the seat of a international experiment that investigates whether a strain of bacteria that binds to nitrogen can help reduce the amount of fertilizer used by farmers.
The huge project that wants to give life back to the bottom of the Aral, the sea that disappeared in the middle of Asi to Dr. Pham Thi Thu Huong of the Field Crops Research Institute is at the head of the experimental test. “Rice, like other crops, depends on the essential nutrients it takes from nitrogen fertilizers, but more than 50% of the fertilizer used is evaporated or poured into the drain,” explains Dr. Huong. “It is transformed into nitrogen dioxide, which, as a greenhouse gas, is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide ”

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Dr. Pham Thi Thu Huong of the Field Crops Research Institute in Vietnam.
For Dr. Huong, the transplant to the field of rice seedlings of 15 days, cultivated in the laboratory, will be the first opportunity to examine the difference in length and weight between those that have been treated and those that have not. When they are seeds, the treated plants are covered with the bacteria that fix the nitrogen. This bacterium, normally found in sugarcane, allows rice plants to extract nitrogen directly from the air , instead of depending on an artificial fertilizer. “As the plant grows, an aerobic relationship develops between the bacteria and the rice plant,” says Huong. “This allows the bacteria to take nitrogen directly from the atmosphere in a way that the plant can use.”

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After 15 days of incubation the treated and untreated rice seedlings are compared before being transplanted to the field.
“Dead zones” The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s introduced the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides worldwide. The increase in world food production saved millions of lives from the imminent threat of famine . However, the excessive use of fertilizers is still so inefficient that more nitrogen than ever is being poured into rivers and oceans. The ingenious solar canoe with which you can travel without oil in the Ecuadorian jungle Excess nitrogen produces “dead zones” by triggering an outbreak of algae that then rot and consume all available oxygen, suffocating the rest of aquatic life. Today there are More than 500 dead zones in the world’s oceans , a figure that has quadrupled in the last 50 years.

The farmers Three times a year, millions of farmers in Vietnam transplant tens of millions of seedlings to their flooded fields. With an annual income of just US $ 1,300, Bui Thi Suot depends on the success of your crops to support your family . “We are aware of pollution and the environment, but our crops need fertilizers, we are farmers, we have no other alternative,” says Bui Thi Suot. The innovative technique capable of turning desert sand into fertile land

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During the rice season, Bui Thi Suot gets up every day at 4 in the morning to transplant seedlings, remove weeds and throw fertilizers and pesticides.
The “super bacteria” With half the crops and farmers in the world dependent on synthetic fertilizers, how can we feed the growing world population without further damaging the environment? Dr. Huong’s experiment in Vietnam is part of a global network of scientists and entrepreneurs They hope that nitrogen-adhesion technologies can help find a solution.

The bioscientist Ted Cocking, from the Crop Nitrogen Fixation Center, in the United Kingdom, was the first to discover the potential of this unique bacterium: Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus , or Gd in abbreviated version. After knowing its effectiveness in the laboratory, Dr. Cocking’s ambition was always to be able to transfer this technology to the field. In 2011, he partnered with businessman Peter Blezard. Together they started a company called Azotic, one of those that finance the experiments with Dr. Huong’s rice in Vietnam .

Blezar hopes that Azotic will start selling the “super bacteria”, in liquid and powder form, in the US commercial market, starting next spring. “We are currently focusing on experiments with corn and soybean crops in the US and Europe, and experiments with rice in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines,” says Blezard. “In Vietnam, we are seeing reductions in the use of nitrogen fertilizer up to a fifty% , combined with an increase in rice yield of 15%.

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Not all varieties of rice react in the same way.
But not everyone is convinced . The microbiologist Tim Mauchline, of Rothamsted Research, in the United Kingdom, doubts that this technology can be replicated with all varieties of crops, all over the world. “The world is a very big place with different climates, weather patterns, crops and soil types,” says Dr. Mauchline. “To think that there is a holy remedy that can solve all these problems would be fantastic, but I would be surprised if this happens.”

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It is projected that the population of Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, will reach 8 million by 2020.
Dr. Huong has discovered that, even in the best experimental conditions, Some varieties of rice have reacted better to the bacteria than others. However, for the doctor, precision and patience are finally paying off. “The first experiment was a total failure, but we brought the bacteria back to the laboratory and repeatedly tested it until we found the right formula,” he says. “I hope that my work helps guarantee the global food security , while preserving and protecting natural resources. ”

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During the rice season, growers work long hours. They have a very narrow opportunity to transplant the millions of seedlings to the crops in the field.
This article is part of the BBC series Taking the Temperature , It addresses the fight against climate change and the people and ideas that can make a difference. The series was produced with funds from the Skoll Fundation. Photo s: Derrick Evans and Ly Truong

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