Location: Agroecosystem Management ResearchTitle: A new Revolutio-N: radically rethinking nitrogen use in agriculture
Submitted to: ASABE Annual International Meeting
Publication Type: Abstract Only
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/6/2023
Publication Date: N/A
Technical Abstract: Challenge: Although todays agricultural production systems produce high-quality protein from nitrogen (N) compounds at a low cost, the process is grossly inefficient. About 87% of the N produced by legumes or synthetic processes is lost before it reaches the consumer as protein. These inefficiencies have a massive environmental impact: the natural gas used for ammonia production, fertilizer losses on croplands, livestock feed inefficiency, and manure - are together responsible for 97% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (mostly nitrous oxide and methane) and over 60% of waterway pollution. Nitrogen fertilizer’s dependency on natural gas also presents economic and security risks. In addition, emerging geopolitical issues, rising fertilizer costs, and greater pressure to address climate change are dramatically influencing both the regulatory and financial drivers that dictate current agricultural production systems. Finally, the challenges and inefficiencies associated with transforming N compounds into plant and animal protein prevent US agriculture from being a more competitive participant in the carbon economy. Solution: We now have the tools and expertise in agriculture, biology, modeling, and chemistry to redesign agricultural production systems in ways that would be subtle from a consumer perspective but would have profound changes in agricultural efficiency and sustainability. Nitrogen management can be dramatically improved by shifting where in the food production system supplemental N is applied and effectively recycling that N on croplands and in livestock production systems. Our key strategy is to use circular N economies in croplands and livestock management and shift the use of the N currently being applied as synthetic fertilizers to specially designed human and animal diets. Over time, this should reduce environmental impact, dramatically reduce N fertilizer demand, and disrupt linkages between agricultural production and volatile energy markets. Approach: This redesign is built on improving seven overlapping systems: (1) Industrial Nitrogen Products shift to renewable power sources and expand the range of N compounds produced for crops and livestock, (2) Crops need to be genetically optimized for high starch to low protein ratios, which facilitates in field recycling of N and genetically optimizing crops for year-round rotations. (3) Cropping and Soil Systems are optimized to mitigate overall N losses to the atmosphere or leaching and enhance soil carbon (C) through crop rotational diversity, application approaches, and optimized organic inputs. (4) Livestock nutrition systems are optimized for the increased use of methane inhibitors, synthetic N compounds and reduced plant-supplied protein through improved genetics, microbiomes, and management. (5) Manure management can be dramatically improved through advanced chemical processing, standardization, and optimization of trading across regional networks. (6) Alternative Proteins created directly through fermentation and processing of plant proteins will play key roles in future markets based on consumer demand, price, and quality. Like livestock these inputs require the above sustainable starch and protein sources. (7) Carbon capture will increase as the proposed crop-soil systems, livestock approaches, and manure processing will increase soil C and provide opportunities for C farming. Implementation: These improvements will require sustained system-level effort to address these problems. The USDA-REE in partnership with farmers, ranchers, industry, universities and other federal agencies are the key leads in this effort. While some aspects of these changes can be implemented now, others will require a decade of research before handing off to industry and producers. In all cases, system-level public and private research is needed to make this transition.