Fertilizer | St. Louis Public Radio

Fertilizer

The Missouri River in St. Charles County in September 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

When corn and soybean farmer Kenny Reichard stopped plowing some of his fields in northern Missouri in 1982, other farmers told him that it was a terrible decision that would lower his yields. 

“I’ve been told many times that no-till doesn’t work,” said Reichard, 62, who farms north of Brunswick in Chariton County. 

More than three decades later, state programs and agriculture initiatives are trying to encourage farmers to adopt no-till and other practices that reduce fertilizer runoff that contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. While many farmers think such methods are expensive, they’re critical to cleaning up the Mississippi River basin. 

Washington University biologists holding a glass jar containing bacteria that have been engineered to use nitrogen from the atmosphere to help it grow.
Joe Angeles | Washington University

Someday, farmers may no longer need to use fertilizer for their crops. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have recently made a crucial step toward engineering plants to fertilize themselves.

Plants need nitrogen to grow, and, in nature, they absorb the nutrient from dead plants. In agriculture, farmers apply fertilizer, as crops alone cannot convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia. Because fertilizer pollutes the environment and is costly for farmers in developing countries, scientists have long researched ways to engineer plants to convert nitrogen by themselves.

In the journal mBio, Wash U researchers reported that they’ve genetically engineered a species of bacteria to use nitrogen from the air to grow.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2012 - Over the past few years, the area where the Mississippi River connects with the Gulf of Mexico has been battered and ravaged by storms and hurricanes, not to mention the spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

In addition, pollutants and chemicals harmful to the river and its wildlife have trickled down from the north, flowing down the 2,320 miles of the Mississippi, mixing with the water and latching onto the riverbed.