UK and Brazil join forces to improve agricultural nitrogen use efficiency

An international team of experts in soil, plant and environmental sciences have joined forces to help to reduce the use of synthetic Nitrogen fertilisers in Brazil and the UK. The aim is to improve the management of Nitrogen to increase yields across a range of soils and climatic landscapes.

The new interdisciplinary virtual centre brings together experts in Brazilian crops and climates, soil nitrogen sensors and X-ray imaging for plant roots and soil at the Hounsfield Facility at The University of Nottingham.

The NUCLEUS research team — Nitrogen Use effiCiency via an integrated SoiL-Plant systEms approach for the Uk & BraSil — is led by Sacha Mooney, Professor of Soil Physics in the School of Biosciences at The University of Nottingham. The research has received funding of £2.2m from the Newton Fund via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK, and from research funding agencies from Sao Paulo State (FAPESP), Maranhao State (FAPEMA) and Goias State (FAPEG).

Nitrogen is a key nutrient for crop production but most agricultural systems require routine, and in some areas, the significant addition of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers to generate high yields. Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) is the term used to explain the difference between the amount of nitrogen used and the amount that goes to waste — escaping into atmosphere or finding its way into surface and ground-water courses.

Brazil is one of the ‘bread baskets’ of the world and a country where the use of synthetic Nitrogen fertilisers is widespread despite plentiful land, water and sunlight.

Similar to the UK, average nitrogen recovery (how much the plant actually uses) in Brazilian agriculture has been estimated to be around 70 per cent, however, enormous regional variation exists. For example, NUE is higher in intensively farmed and industrialised parts of the country but remains very low in former Amazonian areas where severe N-depletion occurs due to inappropriate shifting cultivation practices (e.g. fires, erosion)

How do we increase agricultural production in order to meet the demands of our rapidly expanding world population?

Professor Mooney, said: “Through an enhanced understanding of the plant and soil systems, NUCLEUS will contribute to understanding, developing and deploying new interventions, technologies and approaches for agronomic nitrogen use efficiency. These will be supported through exchanges and workshops making significant contributions to the economic development of both countries involved to meet the diverse needs of the farming communities.”

Professor Ciro Rosolem, an agronomist from Sao Paulo State University, said: “Nitrogen fertilizer application is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. The less nitrogen that is lost to the environment, the better for the farmer and for the general population.”

The British partners are The University of Nottingham (including scientists from the Schools of Biosciences and Geography), the University of Aberdeen, Rothamsted Research, and Bangor University. Partners in Brazil include Sao Paulo State University, the University of Sao Paulo, the University of Western Sao Paulo, the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, Embrapa Rice and Beans, the Goiano Federal Institute, the Federal University of Goias, and Maranhao Federal University.

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