EDF Bowes Fellow Works to Revolutionize Nitrogen Use in Farms

When was the last time you enjoyed a chicken sandwich for lunch, chicken wings at a bar, or grilled chicken at a family cookout? If you’re like many Americans – myself included – the answer is recently. We all know poultry is a staple. But what many don’t know is that producing all that chicken takes a lot of resources and creates a large environmental footprint that stretches from the plate to millions of acres of corn and soybeans. In fact, the largest part of poultry’s environmental footprint is from corn fields.

The reason? The corn that dominates poultry diets depends on huge amounts of fertilizer packed with nitrogen – a key nutrient to make things grow. That’s not a problem in itself, but here’s the rub: closely matching nitrogen applied to what the crop takes up is very difficult, and many farmers lack the information they need to be efficient.  Apply too much, and extra nitrogen runs off into water or is released to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. But apply too little, and the farmer loses yield.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution to this challenge facing both farmers and the environment. A small but growing group of farmers from Iowa plains to North Carolina hills are approaching fertilizer differently. Armed with technology like GPS and aerial imagery, farmers gain much better information about the nutrient needs of their own fields. Empowered, they fine-tune how they manage nitrogen to apply the right rate at the right time and place. Those advances slash nitrogen runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. And they bring something equally important – cash savings for farmers who can cut fertilizer costs without hurting the yield they and their families depend on.

The exciting news is that the fact based solution is known. The challenge is that we need to take it to scale on the over 90 million acres of American corn farmland. As Corporate Partnership’s Project Manager and inaugural William K. Bowes Fellow, I will use my McKinsey consulting expertise to help find innovative business approaches that make that happen. If you have an appetite for this kind of progress, I hope you’ll stay tuned and share your voice.