At the start of the 20th century, two German scientists revolutionized agriculture by making nitrogen cheaply available in fertilizers. Now two American companies are trying to make crops that don’t need as much nitrogen. Chemical giant DuPont and agricultural biotech company Arcadia Biosciences announced a partnership on Wednesday aimed at improving the nitrogen efficiency of corn. Under terms of the agreement, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred unit will have exclusive rights to the technology developed by Davis, Calif.-based Arcadia but further details were not disclosed.
Nitrogen is crucial for plant growth and farmers supplement the limited available nitrogen in soil with lots of fertilizers. But as oil prices climb so do the prices of petrochemical fertilizers; developing corn that needs less nitrogen could help push down farmers’ costs. It could also reduce the carbon footprint of growing corn.
Arcadia estimates that only about half of the nitrogen spread in the form of fertilizers is absorbed by crops. The other half leaches into the soil, water and air, which explains why agriculture is the second-largest industrial contributor to global greenhouse gases. Arcadia says it has already successfully worked on canola, tobacco and rice with its nitrogen use efficiency technology.
This partnership comes on the heels of Pioneer Hi-Bred’s breakthrough last month when its scientists discovered the gene in corn that controls oil production. Once fully developed, these two technologies could make corn into a cheaper and more efficient feedstock for biofuel production — Good news for all those ethanol brewers feeling the heat of high corn prices.