CIMMYT Initiative Looks to Revolutionize Nitrogen Management and Reduce Fertilizer Dependence in Global South

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has announced a grant of up to USD 21.1 million to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for an innovative project aimed at reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. This initiative, called CropSustaiN, seeks to develop new wheat varieties that lower agriculture’s nitrogen footprint, potentially enhancing global food security and environmental sustainability.

As the global population approaches 10 billion, the reliance on fertilizers to boost agricultural production has become crucial but environmentally challenging. Fertilizer use has enabled food production to keep pace with population growth, yet it has caused significant ecological stress. Nitrogen leaching into ecosystems and greenhouse gas emissions are pushing environmental limits to critical thresholds.

CropSustaiN addresses these issues through a natural process called biological nitrification inhibition (BNI). BNI leverages a plant’s ability to suppress soil nitrification by releasing natural compounds, aiming to reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers without compromising wheat yield or soil health. According to Claus Felby, Senior Vice President of Biotech at Novo Nordisk Foundation, this initiative could significantly shift agricultural practices, benefiting the planet and farmers’ livelihoods by reducing fertilizer use and associated costs.

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Bram Govaerts, Director General of CIMMYT, highlighted BNI’s potential to revolutionize nitrogen management in agriculture. He emphasized that this genetic mitigation strategy could complement existing methods and significantly decrease the need for synthetic fertilizers, particularly impactful for the Global South.

The CropSustaiN initiative builds on joint research by the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) and CIMMYT that began in 2015. The initiative has already developed BNI wheat lines tested over three farming seasons, ready for further development and global scaling. The project plans to validate BNI efficacy across diverse climates and integrate the technology into mainstream agricultural practices.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation’s grant supports a collaborative research ecosystem, involving CIMMYT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Aarhus University, the University of Aberdeen, and the University of Copenhagen. This ecosystem aims to foster agricultural innovation and ensure that developed seeds are accessible to all farmers without exclusive patent rights.

By leveraging the natural BNI process, CropSustaiN aims to create new wheat varieties requiring significantly less nitrogen fertilizer. Using conventional breeding techniques, genes from wild crop relatives are incorporated to enhance nitrogen use efficiency. This approach promises a scalable and cost-effective solution, potentially reducing nitrogen fertilizer usage by 20%, depending on regional farming conditions.


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