The Union Government’s Nano Urea Dream Project Is at Best a Paper Tiger

The Union Government’s Nano Urea Dream Project Is at Best a Paper Tiger

There is mounting evidence against the efficacy of nano urea or its claimed benefits for farmers or food production, and much of this comes from India.

In light of new scientific research, the Narendra Modi government’s nano urea (NU) dream is fading. A recent paper by Max Frank and Soren Husted from the University of Copenhagen clearly states, “We observe that NU is a poorly described product with no scientifically proven effects. The product is marketed with misleading and wrong statements about its fertiliser efficiency, the under-lying plant uptake pathways, and the environmental friendliness.” Therefore, the NU project is, at best, a paper tiger.

And it’s not only two foreign scientists, but studies from India’s public agricultural research institutes that confirm NU’s shortcomings. Despite this, the government boldly announced that it would end urea imports by 2025.

What is nano urea?

The Indian government has a 41% stake in the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative (IFFCO), a fertiliser manufacturer and importing company. Some time ago, the cooperative announced the invention of nano-sized urea, claiming that its absorption by plants is higher and that the fertiliser increases crop yields by 8%.

They also claim that instead of using a regular 45 kg bag of urea (45 kg urea or 20.7 kg of nitrogen), farmers can now use a 500 ml bottle with 4% nano urea (43 g urea or 20 g of nitrogen) on their crops and expect higher yields. The “magic” behind this transition is the fact that plants are better suited to take up the nanoparticles, and this formulation also prevents leaching or fertiliser run-offs, hence slightly better for the plants, farmers’ pockets and the environment.

IFFCO claims that NU is about 1,035 times more efficiently taken up by crops and compared to conventional urea, it is that much more effective in both soil application and foliar spray.

Subsequently, the Modi government launched the first nano fertiliser production plant in Gujarat with our tax rupees.

This plant is making nano-DAP (di-ammonium phosphate), another critical fertiliser used in industrial agriculture. NU and nano-DAP are presented as saviours against the rising fertilisers import bill. The Union government claimed that NU will save “Rs 15,000-20,000 crore annually” and perhaps that’s why it is forcing farmers in Gujarat and other parts of the country to forcefully adopt IFFCO’s NU and curtailing the urea bags allotment. Farmers in Kutch protested against this move and didn’t like the mandatory imposition, especially on Independence Day.

Representative image of a farmer spraying fertiliser. Photo: IFPRI/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Science against nano urea?

To get a deeper insight into the problem, I spoke with the authors of the recent paper, Frank and Husted. They explained what will happen after NU is realised on a mass scale, “In the next one or two years, we’d expect the nitrogen stocks present in soils from previous fertilisation to decline, while the yields remain more or less stable – whether you add NU or not. After the second or third year, the nitrogen from previous years is used up more and more and the stock would become so low that we would start to expect a massive decline in crop productivity. The nitrogen deficit cannot be filled up by NU. That is a simple mass balance – 21kg nitrogen from urea versus 20 g from NU,” they explained.

“A mass-scale adoption of NU would result in large-scale yield losses if it replaces conventional urea (45kg bag to 500 ml NU). Ultimately, loss of food security and the livelihood of farmers is to be expected. This will also erode the trust in agricultural science and plant mistrust in novel sustainable technologies that we need so urgently,” the scientists said.

It is also important to understand the technical gaps in IFFCO’s claims. “The most common error is the choice of the adequate control treatment. On their website, IFFCO recommends farmers replace top-dressed/foliar urea with two sprays of top-dressed/foliar NU (45kg vs 500 ml). However, this has never been investigated in any field trial. IFFCO has investigated a replacement of soil-applied urea by 2x top-dressed NU,” the duo said.

“Media and public outreach of IFFCO report that farmers can generally replace a bag of urea with a bottle of NU. However, it is highly probable that farmers could replace a bag of urea with nothing, or with a spray of conventional urea, and they would still have the same yields. This has never been investigated properly, either,” they added.

In conclusion, they emphasised that the conclusions of the papers do not fit the treatments applied in the field studies, and IFFCO’s claims do not fit the conclusions and treatments in the papers, either.

They also point out how “most field trials have been conducted for only one season – this does not account for soil, weather, and climate variability.” Field trials typically need to be undertaken for different cultivars in many regions, in different soils and over several years. Additionally, the few field trials conducted for two seasons weren’t undertaken in the same place. That is why “most results do not seem statistically significant, and often, no statistics were applied at all”.

For them, increased yields because of NU remained unproven. Plus the development of the soil’s nitrogen pool and its uptake from the crops through NU was not investigated

For such a trial to have a value, the soil needs to be nitrogen-responsive. That means, that the addition of nitrogen with a fertiliser will indeed result in an increased yield. Many field trials fail to show that soils were indeed nitrogen-responsive.

Overall, they concluded that it is “very poorly described in which way the crops were treated.” Statements remain very general and unscientific, such as “the treatment was undertaken as per crop yields”. This does not contain any valuable information. And went on to say claims are “often based on older claims in other papers that do not even deal with the topic – so scientific referencing is wrong and misleading”

The India connection

Through the paper and my conversation with its author, it became clear that there is mounting evidence against NU or its claimed benefit for farmers or food production, and much of this comes from India. The name of former soil scientist N.K. Tomar from Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana State Agricultural University came up repeatedly in this context.

“Nano urea’s claims are untested. I have tested the product in my own fields and seen the results. I had even offered my own fields to government-run research institutes for doing field trials of NU, but received no reply. It is because the government knows it’s an untested product,” said Tomar, who now lives on his farm in Meerut.

“Development of NU, nano DAP and nano zinc sulfate, etc. and IIFCO’s baseless claims about their efficiency is the biggest lie in the history of science. All the relevant universal, fundamental principles of chemistry, plant nutrition and plant physiology were ignored and overlooked in this activity, including permission for their sale (marketing) and recommendation for use by the farmers,” he added.

Tomar explained the problem with a simple formula. “IFFCO recommends using 20g NU in half a litre solution for foliar spray on a 1-acre field. This area usually requires about 150 litres of water. This is equal to 0.0133% NU solution as opposed to 2% normal urea solution that has been sprayed on crops for more than 60 years. Thus, the NU solution is 150 times more dilute than the normal urea solution. Even if the plant absorbs all of the urea (which is quite impossible) the urea to wheat protein ratio cannot be maintained,” he said.

Erratic weather, expensive fertilisers, hyper-food inflation and the Ukraine-Russia conflict coupled with Indian farmers being pushed to adopt a fake solution can only spell out disaster for food security in the country.


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