Indigenous Corn Holds the Key to Combating Nitrogen Pollution

A variety of corn from Mexico promises to help humanity solve the problem of nitrogen pollution. (Image:  pexels /  CC0 1.0)
A variety of corn from Mexico promises to help humanity solve the problem of nitrogen pollution. (Image: pexels / CC0 1.0)

Nitrogen pollution has been a hotly debated topic over the past decades, thanks to the inefficient use of fertilizers in agriculture that has resulted in contamination of land and water. According to estimates, almost 57 percent of the nitrogen that is used to fertilize croplands ends up polluting the environment. Fortunately, a variety of corn from Mexico promises to help humanity solve the problem of nitrogen pollution.

Accessing nitrogen

The reason for nitrogen pollution is simple — most of the crops cannot access the nitrogen in the atmosphere. As such, farmers have to supply it externally through fertilizers in order to boost crop yields. But as explained previously, this eventually leads to large-scale environmental pollution that threatens the health of human beings.

There are some crops like beans, soybeans, alfalfa that can access nitrogen directly, a process known as nitrogen fixation. However, since the majority of crops grown in the world are those which cannot access nitrogen, like rice, wheat, corn, etc., large-scale nitrogen pollution was to be expected.

With the discovery of the unique crop variety that is indigenous to the region of Sierra Mixe in Oaxaca, Mexico, all this has changed. This particular variety has been grown in the region by the Native Americans for more than a thousand years.  

The crop can reportedly access nitrogen all by itself. If farmers were to use this specific corn variety in their fields instead of the usual ones, fertilizer usage, and nitrogen pollution, could be reduced to a good extent.

U.S. agriculture will be hit the most as China may attack with import tariffs on American agricultural products. (Image: Andrew Stawarz via flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

There are some crops like beans, soybeans, and alfalfa that can access nitrogen directly, a process known as nitrogen fixation. (Image: Andrew Stawarz via flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

There is, however, a big problem. The Sierra Mixe corn variety takes about eight months to mature. This is almost three times longer than conventional corn, which matures within about three months. There are plans to genetically modify the Sierra Mixe corn so as to create a faster-growing variety.

“Engineering corn to fix nitrogen and form root nodules like legumes have been a dream and struggle of scientists for decades… It turns out that this corn developed a totally different way to solve this nitrogen fixation problem… This corn showed us that nature can find solutions to some problems far beyond what scientists could ever imagine,” Prof. Jean-Michel Ané is quoted by an article at the University of Wisconsin Madison website.

Reducing nitrogen pollution

Nitrogen pollution poses huge health risks for human beings who get exposed to it. For instance, nitrogen from fertilizers can end up polluting water bodies. If children were to intake such water with high concentration of nitrates, they can contract a fatal disease known as “infant methemoglobinemia” or the “blue baby syndrome.”  

Nitrogen pollution poses huge health risks for human beings who get exposed to it. For instance, nitrogen from fertilizers can end up polluting water bodies. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

“Nitrogen pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges that we face… Nitrogen is critical for food security, but it is clearly harming human and environmental health,” Scientific American quotes James Galloway from the University of Virginia, who has been researching about the issue for about four decades.

While the genetically modified version of the Sierra Mixe corn will take some time to hit the market, farmers have the option of precision agriculture to deal with nitrogen pollution. By using modern technologies like drones and sensors, the farmers can now deliver fertilizers in the exact quantities that the crops need. This should help in managing the menace of nitrogen pollution for the time being.

Meddling with something we don’t yet fully comprehend hasn’t been in the best interests of human evolution. When we insist on something being done in a specific way, the long-term results have often been quite contrary, with a variety of new issues left to be tackled. One solution would be to align with nature and simply tune our habits and processes into its cycle. We shouldn’t persist in inventing 10 new problems in the process of solving another problem. 

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