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Scientists find adding rock dust to agricultural fertilizer can boost crop yields by over 15%: 'It's a big step forward'

This method could allow farmers to become less dependent on traditional nitrogen-based fertilizers.

This method could allow farmers to become less dependent on traditional nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study found that applying crushed rock to fields with traditional fertilizer could raise crop yields while also fighting rising global temperatures, New Atlas reported.

The publication explained that rocks naturally absorb planet-heating carbon dioxide as they break down in the environment — the greater the number of tiny rock pieces, the more carbon is absorbed. 

Most rocks take a long time to reach this state, so the researchers used a technique that mechanically pulverizes rocks to dust, and then spread that material across agricultural fields.  

In a previous study, researchers found that this method could remove about 2.2 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere in one year — that's more than the amount of this gas released annually from global aviation and shipping, according to New Atlas.

The newest study found even greater news: this rock dust can actually increase crop yields by 12-16%. Over a four-year period, the researchers spread the tiny basalt particles over fields that grow soybeans and maize on a rotating basis. 

The spike in agricultural productivity was mostly thanks to the fact that basalt raises soil PH, which boosts plants' ability to absorb nutrients from the soil. Basalt-treated fields were also higher in micro- and macronutrients, making the resulting crops more nutritious for both livestock and humans. 

"We have shown with hard-won data, the carbon removal potential of enhanced weathering practices in the real world," the study's lead scientist David Beerling told New Atlas. "It's a big step forward in understanding the enormous potential of this technology to mitigate climate change while simultaneously improving yields and soil health."

This method could allow farmers to become less dependent on traditional nitrogen-based fertilizers, which can have harmful impacts when excess nitrogen pollutes our air, soil, and water. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, excess nitrogen can contribute to the increased formation of ground-level ozone, higher amounts of planet-warming gases, and thinning of the protective ozone layer. It also causes acid rain, polluted drinking water, and oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in the ocean, which can harm marine life, the agency says.

Rock fertilizer isn't the only way that scientists are helping to fight back against this problem. For instance, another group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin has developed a copper-based hydrogel that captures excess nitrate from fertilizer before it has a chance to contaminate our waters and soil. 

This is one of a slew of exciting developments in agriculture that will help us fulfill global food supplies and deal with the challenges of a warming world, like drought and extreme heat. For instance, researchers in Japan have found that getting plants "drunk" can help them withstand drought conditions, and American and Chinese scientists have developed a way to create "heat-resistant" plants.

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