Producing enough food is a national priority in populous countries like India. So much so that the government provides subsidies to offset the cost of chemical fertilizers. Farmers rely on the fertilizers to maximize crop production and keep food prices affordable.

But UWM microbiologist Gyaneshwar Prasad, who is from India, worries. Early in his career, he studied bioremediation – natural ways of cleaning up pollution – and he could see the problems that came with such a reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Making artificial fertilizers requires a disproportionately large amount of fossil fuel, and fertilizers become less effective once a certain saturation point is reached. Moreover, an estimated 20 percent of those chemicals end up in agricultural runoff that pollutes water supplies.

“There’s got to be a way to feed the world in a more sustainable fashion,” says Prasad, an associate professor of biological sciences.

Prasad’s research centers on finding such a solution. To do so, he’s following a path that nature has already laid out, and it has tantalizing possibilities.

For most plants, growth is limited by the amount of nitrogen available in soil, which is depleted over time. But legume crops – such as beans, peas, lentils and alfalfa – have a partnership with certain soil microbes.

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