By: Andrew Swallow

It’s 2028. Farmer Brown looks out over his paddock of wheat on the Canterbury Plains and wonders at its lush green canopy.

“You know son, only 10 years ago we’d have used half a tonne of urea per hectare to get a crop looking like that,” he says.

“What’s urea?” asks young Hamish. At nine years old, he can’t remember when Brown spread white prills packed with 46% nitrogen several times a year on every crop, and up to 10 times on his pastures.

“You might well ask, son,” Brown says. “It’s a fertiliser we all used to use because it was cheap and very effective.”

“Why don’t we use it now?”

“Because we don’t need to. The crops and grass fix their own nitrogen which, provided we make sure no other nutrients are limiting, makes them grow like stink,” Brown says.

Privately, he reflects on how the technology had wrong-footed the fertiliser industry. Millions of dollars a year nationally, and billions globally, were being invested in research to get  greater efficiencies with urea and other nitrogenous products, not to mention mitigate their environmental effects, when, as it turned out, they were obsolete within a decade.

Sound fanciful? Maybe, but replicated field trials in Europe last summer with wheat and maize, and, in Vietnam, rice, showed seed inoculated with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd) significantly outyielded control plots at all fertiliser rates, including normal recommended amounts. Results with maize at three sites in the United States weren’t significant but there was still a consistent trend to higher yields.

The non-GMO, non bio-engineered seed treatment has been developed by United Kingdom-based Azotic Technologies (AT) on the back of work by Nottingham University’s Prof Edward Cocking. Cocking found a way to inoculate a wide range of crop species with the endophytic bacteria which was first isolated in sugar cane, in Brazil, in the late 1980s. “Proof of concept” has now been achieved in grasses, oilseeds, potatoes and tomatoes, AT says.

In a 2013 joint press release with the university, Azotic Technologies chief executive Peter Blezard says he anticipated the technology, branded N-Fix, would be commercially available within two to three years.

Four years later, it’s not there yet, but as the field trials show, it’s getting very close.

“We hope to have something later in 2018,” AT marketing director Allen Sheena says.

“It will probably be a beta product that can be used to assess farmer reaction.”

Oddly, given the trial results AT has publicised, Sheena says that pilot would most likely be in maize, in the US. There were no plans to trial the product in Australia or New Zealand, but it was partnering with Gleadell Agriculture UK, a grain, seed and fertiliser trading business.

Netherlands-based Koppert Biological Systems is a “significant” shareholder in AT with exclusive manufacturing rights to N-Fix. It has a global network of subsidiaries so that seems another likely route to market.

While N-Fix has been registered with UK organic certifiers The Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers, Sheena says interest in N-Fix is coming from all sectors, not just organics.

No peer-reviewed papers on AT’s field trials with N-Fix have been published but the trials were replicated and conducted by independent contract research organisations, Sheena says. More detail of the trial work has been requested however this was not available before this issue went to press.

Sheena says the UK trial was with spring wheat, as opposed to the normally more widely grown autumn-sown crop, owing to a wet autumn.

“We have done some work with winter wheat previously and we are doing more.”


  • Nitrogen fixing bacteria applied as seed coating.
  • Gives every plant cell ability to fix nitrogen.
  • Provides up to 50% of plant nitrogen demand.
  • Non-GMO and not bio-engineered.
  • Proof-of-concept achieved in many crop species, including grasses and potatoes.
  • Yield increases in field trials of wheat, rice and maize.
  • No peer-reviewed papers on field trials published.