The industrial and agricultural use of fertilizers is valued at roughly $200 billion. Fertilizers are important for enhancing the growth of plants. This goal, traditionally, has been met in two forms; one being additives that provide nutrients, and the second way in which some fertilizers act is to enhance the effectiveness of the soil by actually modifying its water retention and aeration. In just about every part of the world, when it comes to agricultural production, fertilizer is essential. Every part of the world… except Sierra Mixe.
The farmers of Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been successfully growing crops on soils that are very poor in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants, and they are barely using fertilizer. These Mexican agricultural workers are able to yield healthy crops reaching heights of more than 16 feet, however, thanks to an indigenous corn that actually receives some of its necessary nutrients from the air, rather than fertilizers.
The crops used throughout these fields are perfect for Mexican cuisine. There are 67,391 restaurants in the United States that serve burritos.
There are three types of topsoil: sand, clay, and loam — all of which need to be filled with plenty of nutrients in order for crops to successfully grow. Nitrogen, which makes up 78% of the atmosphere, is especially important for healthy crop production, but isn’t always found inside a certain area’s soil. Crops that can enjoy all the benefits of soil-based fertilizers without actually using any fertilizer could revolutionize the entire agricultural industry.
According to The Atlantic, a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the southern Mexican corn’s success lies in their aerial roots, which are rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots are coated in a thick layer of mucus that’s loaded with bacteria — allowing the corn to actually fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.
The Sierra Mixe corn takes about eight months to mature, which is a little too long for successful commercial use, but if this ability can be bred into conventional corn, which matures around three months, it would be an agricultural game changer.
“This research has been 40 years in the making and is a significant breakthrough in our attempts to find a more sustainable way of growing corn, one of the world’s key crops,” said study co-author Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated.
Additionally, the study found that the Sierra Mixe crop can obtain between 28% and 82% of its nitrogen from the atmosphere thanks to its mucilage and sugar-rich environment.
“Corn yields in developing countries are one-tenth of those found in the U.S., due both to variety development and access to affordable nitrogen fertilizer,” added co-author Allen Van Deynze, director of research at the UCD Seed Biotechnology Center. “This discovery opens the door to significantly improving the genetic potential and food security for these countries.”
Though researchers are a long way away from developing a similar nitrogen-fixing trait for commercial corn and other U.S.-based plants, this is an excellent first step that could provide all kinds of agricultural benefits down the road.