UBCO lands major grant to reduce GHG emissions, improving watering and fertlization

Researchers at UBCO have won a major grant from Agriculture Canada to suss out the best way to water and fertilize crops in order to maximize resources while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The $1.2-million grant represents more than one-tenth of the research money UBCO draws annually, about $10 million, and should yield published results by 2015.

Coming from a $27-million pot of money tabbed to develop technology for reducing GHG emissions from farming, the research is a major part of Canada’s contribution to the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, an initiative with 30 signatory countries.

“The investigations undertaken by UBC scientists Melanie Jones, Louise Nelson and Craig Nichol will improve our understanding and help increase yields, while still reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint in the Okanagan,” said Miriam Grant, UBCO vice-provost and dean of research.

Figuring out how to optimize irrigation systems to waste as little water as possible, and finding the perfect amount of fertilizer needed for specific crops to reach full potential, will ultimately save farmers money and make better use of resources that are likely to be in short supply as the effects of climate change unfold.

Leaving water shortages aside, fertilizers are made from fossil fuels, which are finite resources that cannot be replaced at the rate they are being consumed, Nichol explained, so using nitrogen-based fertilizers sparingly is extremely important and has been the focus of significant research already.

The ground-breaking twist to the work these scientists will do lies in how farmers and orchardists can minimize the impact watering and fertilizing have on the environment through the myriad of factors included in plant GHG emissions.

Greenhouse gases are pegged as a major contributor to, if not the main cause, of global warming and plants let off the air pollutants just by growing.

Carbon dioxide, one of the main gases involved, is taken up during photosynthesis, the process by which plants eat and grow; but it is also emitted when the root systems that store extra carbon, a process known as carbon sequestration, die off. Plants have both long-term root systems, which continually store carbon, and shorter-term root systems that die annually, emitting carbon. The researchers will look at ways fertilization and watering can be done to reduce carbon emissions from those secondary root systems, from other soil respiration and whether GHG emissions are coming from the long-term or shorter-term carbon storage.

The second major GHG involved in farming is nitrous oxide, which causes a further chemical reaction to impact ozone. Nelson’s work will look at the nitrous oxide given off by bacteria in the soil with an eye to the impact of various styles and amounts of watering and fertilizing.

Jones will work with colleagues in New Zealand to look at where the carbon emissions from the root systems are coming from and Nichol will look at the process overall.

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