l The Nitrogen conundrum

The Nitrogen conundrum

Nitrogen, the most abundant gas in our atmosphere, also is the most important nutrient for plants to grow, sounds like win-win situation but is not. 78% of air constitutes nitrogen, yet it is not available at the exposure of plants since atmospheric nitrogen, or dinitrogen, is unreactive and cannot be utilised by plants directly. Plants need nitrogen in the form of ammonium (NH4+) or nitrate (NO3-) which either bacteria provide or has to be given artificially to the plants to grow. 

Since 1900, population of India has increased by many folds. India being the second most populated country and the seventh largest in terms of its land area, stands incapable of feeding its 1.34 billion population and it becomes mandatory for a country like ours to reach the extra edge to fulfill our demands and necessities. Until the beginning of 20 the century farmers relied on the nitrogen fixing bacteria Rhizobia, to render the plants nitrogen in the form they (plants) sought. Scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch solved this problem by producing ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen gas at high temperature and pressure—known as the Haber-Bosch process. And revolution of food self-reliance, the Green Revolution, was instrumental in establishing food security in the developing countries in the 1960s, was driven by artificial nitrogen-fixation.

Indian Fertilizer Scenario 2014, an annual publication of the department of fertilisers under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, states that the use of urea in the country has increased by more than 50 per cent since 2000. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s annual consumption of nitrogen is 44.97 million tonnes, while India consumes 16.48 million tonnes four times more than Brazil’s annual consumption of 4.25 million tonnes. 

The increasing rate of nitrogen use by humans has led to an imbalance in the nitrogen content in the environment. Nitrogen once contaminated in water reaches water bodies and hence gives way for eutrophication, by which it resists the sunlight to penetrate inside the sea and hence hampers the growth of the static biological bodies inside and hence depletes the food chain therein. If not so, the aquatic animals feed on the nutrients and hence bioremediation occurs and reaches us by our food habits. Airborne nitrogen compounds like nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of other air pollutants such as ground-level ozone, a component of smog which can restrict visibility. Wind and weather can carry ozone many miles from urban to rural areas. Ozone pollution can damage trees and harm the appearance of vegetation and scenic areas.

This brings us to a catch 22 situation. We cannot feed our population without using these artificial nutrients also we cannot let our population suffer with the ill effects of this toxic element. We cannot produce enough food to feed the nation without nitrogen, but at the same time we cannot keep introducing higher quantities of nitrogen because of its polluting effects.

Bangladesh has managed to increase the efficiency of nutrition uptake by plants by applying fertilisers through tablets. Tablets and coated forms of nitrogen, when applied at the root level, release nutrients slowly. A similar attempt is being made with neem-coated urea in India.  Nitrogen pollution is an issue of improper management rather than inability. Though efforts have been taken but these are indeed baby steps for the giant problem which lies ahead. More awareness is to be brought among the farmers. Govt. must rationalize the use of fertilizers. And bring measures to help and support the farmers likewise.We rely on scientific advancements by our scientists for a eco-friendly solution to the problem. And encouragement of new innovations in agricultural technologies.  


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