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Scientists share new insights to reduce concerning byproduct of agriculture: 'Artificial intelligence can uncover patterns that traditional methods may overlook'

The computer indicated some impressive potential.

The computer indicated some impressive potential.

Photo Credit: iStock

High-tech computer power has helped experts from China's Southern University of Science and Technology identify a way to prevent harmful ammonia that's part of chemical fertilizers from eventually polluting the air. 

It turns out that better management of nitrogen fertilizer can reduce the pollution of three studied crops by up to 38%, representing billions of pounds of harmful, smog-creating ammonia emissions, according to reports from the university and Mongabay. It's important work, because airborne ammonia can cause heart- and lung-related health problems, as NASA noted

The experts used machine learning (a version of artificial intelligence) to study ammonia pollution from global rice, wheat, and corn crops from 2018. Some key takeaways involve fertilizers that more slowly release the nitrogen, which is partly converted to ammonia after application. The fertilizers are applied to provide better crop production. 

Putting the fertilizer deeper in the soil — as opposed to surface application — and considering crop type, local climate, and soil conditions are also factors to help put together an application plan, per Mongabay. 

"Using enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and applying fertilizer deep in the soil are the most effective mitigation measures, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution," study lead Zheng Yi said in the Mongabay report.

The computer indicated some impressive potential. About 83% of global rice crops could be helped by "enhanced-efficiency" fertilizers. The experts report that utilizing the approach would likely reduce pollution in 61% of wheat and half of corn crops.

Astoundingly, the team predicted that better management would help farmers offset the projected 15.8% ammonia pollution increase from farming those three crops alone by 2100. 

"Artificial intelligence can uncover patterns that traditional methods may overlook," Zheng said in the Mongabay report.

While fertilizers are important to creating greater yields for a food system that will likely be feeding an excess of 2 billion more people by 2050, their use can benefit from analysis and innovation. Scientists at the University of Texas are developing a "smart farming" approach using a hydrogel that can prevent nitrogen runoff. The gel triggers ammonia conversion in a way the Texas team said allows it to be harmlessly reused. 

At home, we can help by adjusting how we manage our refrigerator stockpile. The good news is that artificial intelligence isn't needed to put together a plan. You can better utilize leftovers. Or you can simply create a checklist when you shop — a practice that could save you nearly $200 a year and cut planet-warming, methane-making landfill waste by around 50 pounds annually, simply by eliminating 15% of your food trash.   

As for the fertilizer research, the team in China is optimistic about how data can be used to help improve farming around the world. But it told Mongabay that it's only part of a larger ammonia pollution picture. Livestock management, biomass use, and dirty-energy burning are other factors.

The findings demonstrate "the immense potential of big data and artificial intelligence in supporting sustainable development goals," Zheng said.

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