How can we possibly resolve the planet’s nitrogen dilemma?

Silvio Matassa* (Corresponding Author), Pascal Boeckx, Jos Boere, Jan Willem Erisman, Miao Guo, Raffaele Manzo, Francis Meerburg, Stefano Papirio, Ilje Pikaar, Korneel Rabaey, Diederik Rousseau, Jerald Schnoor, Pete Smith, Erik Smolders, Stefan Wuertz, Willy Verstraete

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Nitrogen is the most crucial element in the production of nutritious feeds and foods. The production of reactive nitrogen by means of fossil fuel has thus far been able to guarantee the protein supply for the world population. Yet, the production and massive use of fertilizer nitrogen constitutes a major threat in terms of environmental health and sustainability. It is crucial to promote consumer acceptance and awareness towards proteins produced by highly effective microorganisms, and their potential to replace proteins obtained with poor nitrogen efficiencies from plants and animals. The fact that reactive fertilizer nitrogen, produced by the Haber Bosch process, consumes a significant amount of fossil fuel worldwide is of concern. Moreover, recently, the prices of fossil fuel have increased the cost of reactive nitrogen by a factor of 3 to 5
times, while international policies are fostering the transition towards a more sustainable agro-ecology by reducing mineral fertilizers inputs and increasing organic farming. The combination of these pressures and challenges opens opportunities to use the reactive nitrogen nutrient more carefully. Time has come to effectively recover used nitrogen from secondary resources and to upgrade it to a legal status of fertilizer. Organic nitrogen is a slow-release fertilizer, it has a factor of 2.5 or higher economic value per unit nitrogen as fertilizer and thus adequate technologies to produce it, for instance by implementing photobiological processes, are promising. Finally it appears wise to start the integration in our overall feed and food supply chains of the exceptional potential of biological nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen produced by the nitrogenase enzyme, either in the soil or in novel biotechnology reactor systems, deserves to have a ‘renaissance’ in the context of planetary governance in general and the increasing number of people who desire to be fed in a sustainable way in particular.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-27
Number of pages13
JournalMicrobial Biotechnology
Issue number1
Early online date15 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


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