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$12M UK-US collaboration to rethink fertilisers for farming

9 July 2012

UK and US researchers are being invited to participate in an 'Ideas Lab' that will radically rethink current approaches of producing crops in order to reduce reliance on nitrogen fertilisers.

The joint Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and National Science Foundation (NSF) 'Ideas Lab' aims to help meet the challenge of sustainably producing enough food for a growing population, whilst reducing costly fertiliser inputs that can impact the environment. The event will generate research proposals for the $12M of available funding.

Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and many agricultural crops rely on the addition of nitrogen-based fertilisers. With increasing demand for food and other crops, we're expected to use around 190.4 million tonnes of fertiliser each year globally by the end of 2015. (ref 1)

Producing nitrogenous fertilisers requires a great deal of energy - and that means burning fossil fuels. By 2050 it is estimated that 2% of global energy will be used in fertiliser production. This will be the single largest energy input into intensive agriculture. (ref 2) Nitrogen fertilisers can also be washed off of agricultural land resulting in polluted water courses.

Prof Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "To feed a growing global population sustainably, we need to think outside current practice and explore the potential of research that could produce radical new farming methods and technologies. We need solutions that are better for farmers and the environment and this Ideas Lab is a big step towards generating knowledge that could decrease fertiliser inputs while maintaining or increasing crop yields.

"This is about fresh ideas and fresh approaches. The outputs of this research should aim to revolutionise farming for the future."

The Ideas Lab will explore ways to enable plants to use the abundant supply of nitrogen already in the earth's atmosphere. Most plants cannot use nitrogen unless it is 'fixed' (combined) to form ammonium or nitrate, and others struggle to make use of available nitrogen efficiently. To solve this problem, research proposals could, for example, be developed that will result in crops capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere themselves, or with improved nitrogen use efficiency.

The Ideas Lab will involve multidisciplinary teams including researchers from a traditional biology background, as well as other disciplines that may help to shed light on the topic, such as physics, engineering, mathematical modelling, computer science or chemistry.

Dr John Wingfield, NSF's Assistant Director for the Directorate of Biological Sciences said: "The aspiration is that mixing researchers from diverse backgrounds will engender fresh thinking and approaches that can be brought to bear on this long-standing problem. By bringing together the best researchers from the US and the UK, the intention is to form strong transatlantic alliances, where the resulting synergies from the expertise of each partner, allows for significant added value."

The US and UK collaboration reflects the two nations' mutual recognition that research and development - along with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - are essential elements of economic prosperity. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron highlighted the initial plans for the Ideas Lab when outlining their shared commitment to strong collaboration in science (see:  www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/14/joint-fact-sheet-us-uk-higher-education-science-and-innovation-collabora).

The interactive Ideas Lab workshop will be held at Crewe Hall, near Crewe (UK) from 3-7 December 2012.

Information on application for expressions of interest can be found at: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/opportunities/2012/ideaslab-nitrogen-improving-on-nature.aspx.

References

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Current World Fertilizer Trends and Outlook to 2015. Rome, 2011 ftp://ftp.fao.org/ag/agp/docs/cwfto15.pdf (external PDF). Accessed 09/07/12.
  2. M.J. Glendining et al. Is it possible to increase the sustainability of arable and ruminant agriculture by reducing inputs? Agricultural Systems. 6 January 2009. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X08001285. Accessed 9/7/12

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M (2011-2012), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.