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How IFFCO’s nano urea is a failure?

India's largest fertilizer manufacturer, the IFFCO, launched Nano Liquid Urea, claiming its scientific validity

By Ground Report
New Update
Research claims IFFCO’s nano urea has no scientifically proven effects

India's largest fertilizer manufacturer, the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Co-operative (IFFCO), launched Nano Liquid Urea, claiming its scientific validity. However, a recent opinion paper challenges its authenticity, stating that Nano Urea lacks scientifically proven properties and is labelled a poor product.

Nano urea reduces rice, wheat yields

Scientists from Punjab Agricultural University carried out a two-year experiment on nano urea, a new type of fertilizer. They found that using nano urea led to a significant drop in the amount of rice and wheat produced compared to using regular nitrogen fertilizer. The amount of nitrogen in the grains, which is needed to make protein, also went down.

The use of nano urea resulted in 21.6% less wheat and 13% less rice. This study was done in the years 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Nano liquid urea was introduced in June 2021 by the Indian Farmers and Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO). They claimed that a small spray bottle of nano urea could replace a full 45-kilogram bag of regular fertilizer. The government has been promoting this new fertilizer a lot.

Urea is a type of fertilizer that is very high in nitrogen, which plants need to grow. It turns into ammonia in the soil. Nano urea is made up of very tiny granules of nitrogen. This fertilizer is a foliar spray, which means it’s meant to be sprayed on the leaves of the crops.

Paper questions Nano Urea’s effectiveness

The paper, published under a Creative Commons license on July 25, 2023, was authored by Max Frank and Søren Husted from the University of Copenhagen. They question Nano Urea's quality based on scientific evidence. The paper is titled "Is India's Largest Fertilizer Manufacturer Misleading Farmers and Society Using Dubious Plant and Soil Science."

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IFFCO NANO UREA 500ML. Photo credit: Eraithu

The researchers dispute IFFCO's claims by comparing them to reputable journal literature. IFFCO asserted that a 250 gm Nano Urea spray, with only 20 gm Nitrogen, equals a 45 kg conventional urea bag with 21 kg Nitrogen.

In a research paper published in Plant and Soil, a monthly scientific journal in Holland, authors Max Frank and Soren Huste have cautioned that there could be grave implications for food security. They argue that the expectations set by IFFCO are highly unrealistic and could result in significant yield losses, thereby endangering food security and the livelihoods of farmers.

Furthermore, such unmet promises may pose a threat to the credibility of innovative sustainable products and the underlying scientific research. The authors added the need for a stronger focus on scientifically confirming the effectiveness of new nano-based fertilizers and comprehending how they work before introducing them to the market. They reached this conclusion by examining the IFFCO case and observing the worldwide adoption of such fertilizers.

Authors question IFFCO's NUE claims

The authors find these claims unclear and doubt that Nano Urea can increase nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) by 1000 times compared to conventional urea, as claimed by IFFCO.

In partnership with the Government of India, IFFCO aimed to expand Nano Urea production. However, the opinion paper concludes that IFFCO's claims are far from reality and could harm crop yield, food security, and farmers' livelihoods.

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IFFCO Set Up A Nano Urea Liquid Manufacturing Plant In Argentina, Brazil. Photo credit: IFFCO

While nitrogen is crucial for crop growth, excessive use causes environmental issues. The scientific community warns about crossing planetary boundaries with excessive nitrogen. Nano Urea's behaviour remains uncertain, raising questions about its validity.

Producers claim that a 45 kg bag of conventional urea with 21 kg nitrogen (N) can be replaced by 20 g N of nano urea through foliar application. The research paper suggests that if this holds true, the novel high-tech fertilizer's N could enhance crop N-use efficiency (NUE) over 1,000 times compared to conventional urea.

Is Nano Urea non-toxic and environmentally friendly?

The environmental friendliness of Nano Urea (NU) plays a major role in the promotion of the product. A closer inspection of the NU website: “Production of IFFCO Nano Urea is energy and resource-friendly” and “It reduces the excess application of bulk urea and associated volatilization as well as leaching and run off losses”. Various forms of similar statements have adopted or generalized in a variety of publications.

The nitrogen (N) in NU production originates from the Haber–Bosch process, similar to other synthetic fertilizers. The patent application specifies urea as the nitrogen source. Processing urea by IFFCO could raise the environmental footprint per unit of nitrogen applied, unlike bulk urea.

The paper criticizes Nano Urea's marketing, highlighting its false claims and lack of evidence for environmental benefits. It emphasizes the importance of scientific proof before launching products.

Previous studies suggest nanotechnology may improve nutrient uptake in plants and reduce losses. However, NU has not explored its application. The overall N balance and N loss per unit applied require further investigation. Despite assumptions of lower environmental impacts and reduced N requirements, insufficient evidence supports these claims.

IFFCO tested NU for biotoxicity following the "Guidelines for Evaluation of Nano-Based-Agri-Input & Food Products in India 2020," issued GOI. They offer a product safety assessment sheet to document non-toxicity, biosafety quality for diverse organisms, aligning with international guidelines. This is in accordance with multiple international guidelines.

The sources lack information about the laboratories, testing procedures, and detailed test results. Iavicoli's 2017 study emphasized the risks of nano-fertilizers and the need for safety measures. Based on available information, IFFCO may have failed to meet these measures or not shared them transparently with the public.

Do we know how Nano Urea interacts with plants?

The effectiveness of Nano Urea's interaction with plants remains uncertain. IFFCO promotes NU's suitability for various plants, recommending two sprays during specific growth stages. However, the efficacy of foliar uptake can differ among crops due to diverse leaf properties.

IFFCO claims improved photosynthesis and chlorophyll content, referencing a study on maize. Yet, this study lacks critical information and statistical support.

According to some publications, NU sticks to leaves and enters plants through openings. It travels through cells and stores until required, releasing urea from particles in a controlled manner. Yet, transport proteins and channels are speculative claims of NU passing through, as nanoparticles are usually excluded due to their size.

Lastly, IFFCO has asserted the product's high effectiveness for soil applications; however, they haven't detailed the specific application methods on their webpage or any other available sources. Currently, there is a significant lack of scientific literature pertaining to studies on soil application of NU.

Furthermore, the paper also noted the government's intention to significantly increase nano urea production. This involves establishing 10 new factories with an annual capacity of 440 million bottles by 2025. Additionally, there are plans to expand product exports to 25 countries, primarily across Asia, Africa, and South America.

The paper also noted IFFCO's plan for launching nano zinc and nano copper after approving nano Di-Ammonium Phosphate (nano-DAP) in March 2023.

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