Nature Sustainability Publishes iSEE Critical Conversation Commentary

A revolution in Midwestern agriculture has to happen to minimize the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone, according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE).

On Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, iSEE Directors and Affiliates published a commentary piece in Nature Sustainability, produced as a result of the iSEE Critical Conversation 2018: The Nitrogen Reduction Challenge, a collaborative forum that united scientists and scholars to generate innovative solutions.

It is a little-known fact that corn — a Midwestern staple crop — has a bearing on the Gulf of Mexico’s health. The link is nitrogen, a common agricultural fertilizer component. According to a team of Illinois researchers, each annual harvest removes just 60-70% of nitrogen from fields.

“Ultimately, via the Mississippi River, the remaining nitrogen will flow into the Gulf, facilitating hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) and endangering marine life,” said Principal Author Madhu Khanna, iSEE Associate Director for Research.

Based on discussions at the Critical Conversation and existing research, Khanna and her co-authors suggest a two-pronged strategy to arrest this wicked hypoxia problem at its source: overfertilization. Nitrogen requirements typically differ from site to site, even in a single field. However, many farmers opt to fertilize uniformly, which can be detrimental to crop health and facilitate excess chemical runoff. This paper proposes blending big data technology with site-specific “precision farming” — real-time, comprehensive data repositories can allow farmers to apply nitrogen in optimal quantities.

Current strategies to mitigate the Gulf’s biological and financial hazards are high-cost, low-reward, often relying on voluntary participation and demanding financial incentive. However, iSEE’s proposed solutions are proactive.

“The insight needed to vary nitrogen applications in response to site-specific conditions will be instrumental in reducing nutrient loss and increasing profitability,” Khanna said.

The authors posit genome editing as a second strategy to reduce maize’s dependence on nitrogen. To close, they suggest a series of next steps centered on research into precision farming, stakeholder education and engagement, and legislation to advance genome editing and water quality regulations.

The writing team of “Harnessing Emerging Technologies to Mitigate the Hypoxia Challenge” also includes: Benjamin M. Gramig, Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Evan H. DeLucia, iSEE Baum Family Director; Ximing Cai, iSEE Associate Director for Campus Sustainability; and Praveen Kumar, Colonel Harry F. and Frankie M. Lovell Endowed Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The authors acknowledge the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund for sponsorship of iSEE Critical Conversations.

Read the full paper in Nature Sustainability >>>