Understanding the Importance of Nitrogen in Soil

September 9, 2019

Understanding the Importance of Nitrogen in Soil

By Francesca Singer

If they ever make a movie titled “Soil,” the star will be nitrogen.

Sure, minerals, organic material, and various microbes are important. Climate, geography, and hydrology have their roles, too.

But the marquee name? That’s nitrogen. It has earned top billing due to being essential to life on Earth. It’s necessary for the formation of proteins, nucleic acids, and other structures vital to living organisms. Plants rely on nitrogen more than any other nutrient, which makes it a focal point for growers worldwide.

What Is Nitrogen?

Nitrogen gas (N2) makes up the vast majority of our atmosphere – almost 80 percent – but the gas cannot be used directly by plants or animals. So while all organisms need nitrogen, they take it in by ingesting plants or animals that have eaten plants.

The plants, in turn, must absorb nitrogen from the soil, which is where things get a bit complicated.

The Nitrogen Cycle

All fertilizer contains nitrogen. There are two forms of nitrogen, organic and inorganic.

Atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is an organic form that isn’t accessible in its current form.

The first step N2 must undertake to become available to plants is called “nitrogen fixation.” That’s the process of combining with oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. About 90% to 95% of the fixation process takes place in the soil, through the microbial process. Lightning is responsible for fixing the rest.

Fixed nitrogen must still undergo nitrification or mineralization to take on an inorganic form that can be used by plants. Only after microbes have converted organic nitrogen into ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-) can plants uptake them through their root systems.

Increasing Bioavailable Nitrogen in Soil

The nitrogen cycle in nature is complex. That’s why agriculture has long relied upon industrial processes for creating the fixed nitrogen used in fertilizers. This presents a number of problems. The most significant is the overuse of nitrite fertilizer, which runs off and contaminates waterways and groundwater. One way to curb the need for excess chemical fertilizers is to improve the condition of the soil. Scientists are now working to make soil more conducive to the natural processes that convert nitrogen to bioavailable forms.

The process of converting nitrogen into a form that plants can use is dependent upon moisture and oxygen. Cool Terra®, a biochar-based soil amendment can improve the soil in just this way. Its engineered Biocarbon™ technology improves fertilizer efficiency by holding water and nutrients in the root zone longer. This gives plants and microbes more time to consume them. This not only reduces issues related to leaching and runoff, but can also reduce the need for excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer.

By focusing on healthier soil, Cool Terra promotes sustainability on a wider scale. The soil amendment will decrease fertilizer runoff and sequester carbon– ultimately working towards a healthier planet.

When you understand the complexity required to produce the food that feeds the world, it’s hard to look at soil casually. Next time you sit down to eat, take a moment to appreciate the molecular processes that make it possible for farmers to grow food. It is possible to find ways to make agriculture more efficient and healthier for the planet, starting from the ground up.

Francesca Singer

Francesca Singer is a DIY enthusiast with a master’s degree in landscape architecture. She splits her time between Texas and rural France. When not writing or wrangling a toddler, she can be found working on one of her farms or gardens.

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