Agronomic efficiency and additional benefits of sustainable phosphate fertilizers

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Rothamsted Research, EX20 2SB, West Devon, England, United Kingdom
Closed about 6 months ago (02 Dec)  

The continued supply of phosphate fertilizers that underpin global food production is an imminent crisis. The rock phosphate deposits on which the world depends are not only finite, but some are contaminated with cadmium and other toxins, and many are located in geopolitically unstable areas, meaning that alternative phosphate fertilizers need to be developed to address this issue, such as struvite recovered from wastewater treatment or Thallo fertilizer, a phosphate and micronutrient-rich fertilisers made from abattoir waste and other industrial by-products, produced by an SME called Elemental Digest Systems, and who are the CASE partner on this application. This project will investigate the efficiency and potential additional benefits of these, and other, novel fertilizers. In addition, this project will address another growing global food security crisis – micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrient deficiency, often referred to as hidden hunger, has largely been caused by the use of NPK fertilisers that increase the removal of micronutrients in crops at rates higher than at which they are naturally replenished. Thus, in order to reduce micronutrient deficiencies in crops, animals and ultimately humans, fertilizers must incorporate appropriate concentrations of micronutrients, an opportunity which the manufacture of these novel fertilizers permits. This project will investigate the agronomic efficiency and potential health benefits of a range of recycled, sustainable phosphate fertilizers, fortified to different extents with micronutrients, and assess their impact on soil, crop and animal health.

Rotation project one: This will involve an initial pot trial comparison of different fertilizers and formulations for the production of grass, and analysis of the grass in terms of yield and quality related to micronutrient content. Trials will be carried out in controlled environment facilities at North Wyke, and initially incorporate a single soil type. This will be based at Rothamsted Research North Wyke, under the supervision of Dr Blackwell.

Rotation project two: During this rotation project, sheep will be fed grass produced in plots using both a micronutrient-rich recycled phosphate fertilizer (Thallo) along with grass produced using conventional fertiliser. These plots will be established early in year 1 during the period of the first rotation. Live-weight gain and changes in nutrient levels in blood samples will be monitored to identify any differences in the performance of the two feedstocks. This work will be based at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke[MB1] , under the supervision of Professor Lee.

Fits within the BBSRC remit

Agriculture and food security are at the forefront of BBSRC’s remit, and this project directly addresses these because securing reliable sources of uncontaminated phosphate fertiliser is vital for the production of global food supplies. Moreover, micronutrient deficiencies in animals and humans is a growing concern in many parts of the world and something that can be tackled through the innovative, novel fertilisers that will be tested in this project.


This project covers a range of interdisciplinary topics, including soil science, plant science, animal science and agronomy. The supervisory team will provide research expertise in in all these topics. The project will be carried out across a range of scales from pot to plot and provide the student with both livestock and agronomic training and skills.

Research is underpinned by a mathematical approach.

The student will have access to high quality statistical support at Rothamsted Research, enabling a mathematical approach to be adopted in the planning, design, execution and data analysis of all experiments. Mathematical techniques will include principal components type approaches, and chemical analysis and development will incorporate advanced chemical mathematics.

Added value

In addition to the primary research the student will conduct, they will also have access to data collected from field trials carried out over two years (2018 – 2019) at Rothamsted’s Harpenden site. Here, Thallo fertilizer has been used in field trials of wheat and oilseed rape, in combination with different amounts of nitrogen fertiliser, and compared to other organic amendments. The data will be available to the student to analyse and write-up. The student will also have access to the new Small Ruminant Facility for animal trials at North Wyke, and a large range of soils for use in pot investigations via the Rothamsted Long Term Experiments, and benefit from association with ongoing Institute Strategic Programmes (ISP) including Soil to Nutrition and ASSIST.

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