MEXICO – The Mexican International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has received a substantial grant of US$21.1 million from the Danish Novo Nordisk Foundation to support the CropSustaiN initiative.

This project aims to develop new wheat varieties that can significantly reduce the agricultural industry’s nitrogen footprint by lessening dependence on fertilizers, thus promoting public health and enhancing food security.

Success in this initiative could lead to a major shift in agricultural practices globally, benefiting both the planet and farmers’ livelihoods,” remarked Claus Felby, Senior Vice President of Biotech at the Novo Nordisk Foundation. 

He added that the farmer’s cost would be minimal as all necessary components are already within the seed. Felby also hinted at the potential extension of this initiative to other staple crops like maize and rice.

The research focuses on Biological Nitrification Inhibition (BNI), a breakthrough technology that takes cues from nature. BNI involves a seed-based genetic strategy where plants suppress soil nitrification by releasing natural compounds, potentially curbing the reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. 

Bram Govaerts, Director General of CIMMYT, explained, “BNI could be a part of how we revolutionize nitrogen management in agriculture. It represents a genetic mitigation strategy that not only complements existing methods but also has the potential to decrease the need for synthetic fertilizers substantially. The mitigation potential of better nitrogen fertilizer management could be as impactful for the Global South as the Green Revolution.”

Over-reliance on nitrogen fertilizers poses risks to human health and contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. However, reducing nitrogen fertilizer use raises concerns about potential impacts on wheat yields and food security. 

The BNI approach aims to balance these aspects by offering scalable, cost-effective solutions that could reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by up to 20%, depending on regional farming conditions.

Through CropSustaiN, CIMMYT plans to breed new climate-resistant wheat varieties by crossbreeding with wild crops like wild rye, which naturally use nitrogen more efficiently. 

These new varieties will be distributed through CIMMYT’s international network of partners. The Novo Nordisk Foundation aims to ensure these seeds are accessible to all farmers, free from exclusive patent rights.

The initiative builds on research conducted by CIMMYT and the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences since 2015, which has already produced BNI wheat lines tested over three farming seasons and ready for global scaling.

Additionally, the Novo Nordisk Foundation is funding BNI-related research at CIMMYT, the Danish Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Aberdeen, UK.

This initiative aligns with broader efforts to innovate agricultural practices. Recently, British Sugar announced plans to collaborate with the UK government, scientists, and private industry to develop disease-resistant sugar beet varieties through gene-editing, addressing similar concerns about fertilizer use and its impacts on human health.

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