Poster Paper: Biofixation of Atmospheric Nitrogen in the Context of World Staple Crop Production: Policy Perspectives

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Muhammad Salar Khan, James L. Olds and Naoru Koizumi, George Mason University

Biofixation of atmospheric nitrogen in the context of world staple crop production: Policy perspectives

The extensive use of nitrogen (N) fertilizers implicates a paradox: while fertilizers ensure the supply of a large amount of food, they cause negative environmental externalities including reduced biodiversity, and eutrophic streams and lakes. Moreover, such fertilizers may also result in a major public health hazard: increased antibiotic resistance. This poster (based on policy article) discusses the critical implications of perturbations in N cycle caused by excessive use of fertilizers and resulting policy implications as they relate to ecosystems services. While there are solutions such as cover crops, these solutions are expensive and inconvenient for farmers. We advocate the use of biological fixation (BF) for staple crops—microbiome mediated natural supply of fixed N. This would involve engineering a microbiome that can be grown cheaply and at industrial scale. Fertilizers resulting from such innovation are termed as “biofertilizers” in this poster. Following a qualitative cost-benefit analysis broken down by key stakeholders and a quick exploration of policy frameworks as they relate to the advancement of biofertilizers, we propose a practical pathway of where and how research investments should be directed to make such a solution practical. We make five policy recommendations for decision-makers to facilitate a successful trajectory for this solution: 1) Future agricultural science should seek to understand how BF might be employed as a practical and efficient strategy. This effort would require that industry and the government partner to establish a pre-competitive research laboratory equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technologies that conduct metagenomic experiments to reveal signature microbiomes. 2) To have a smooth ride in the market, ag-bio companies should: i) create awareness among farmers; ii) impart skills to farmers in testing and using biofertilizers, and iii) conduct extensive field tests and more research in studying the scalability potential of such fertilizers. 3) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state governments should provide research and development (R&D) tax credits to biotech companies specifically geared towards R&D investments aimed at increasing the viability of BF and microbiome engineering. 4) To control agricultural pollution in the biosphere, federal governments should consider passing a Clean Agriculture Act (CAA), including a specific clause that regulate the use of chemical fertilizers. 5) Governments and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) should coordinate Biological Advanced Research in Agriculture (BARA)—a global agricultural innovation initiative for investments and research in biological fixation and ethical, legal, and social implications of such innovation. While biological fixation will be central in BARA, we envision it to conduct research around other agricultural innovations as well, such as increasing photosynthetic efficiency.

Keywords: Biological fixation, Environmental externalities, Biofertilizers, Nitrogen, Microbiome engineering, Metagenomics.