Dpto. Microbiología del Suelo y Sistemas Simbióticos, Estación Experimental del Zaidín, CSIC Prof. Albareda 1, E-18008 Granada, Spain
The intensive application of fertilizers during agricultural practices has led to an unprecedented perturbation of the nitrogen cycle, illustrated by the growing accumulation of nitrates in soils and waters and of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere. Besides increasing use efficiency of current N fertilizers, priority should be given to value the process of biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) through more sustainable technologies that reduce the undesired effects of chemical N fertilization of agricultural crops. Wider legume adoption, supported by coordinated legume breeding and inoculation programs are approaches at hand. Also available are biofertilizers based on microbes that help to reduce the needs of N fertilization in important crops like cereals. Engineering the capacity to fix nitrogen in cereals, either by themselves or in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing microbes, are attractive future options that, nevertheless, require more intensive and internationally coordinated research efforts. Although nitrogen-fixing plants may be less productive, at some point, agriculture must significantly reduce the use of warming (chemically synthesized) N and give priority to BNF if it is to sustain both food production and environmental health for a continuously growing human population.