‘Inoculant technology can improve leguminous plant out-put’
Abdullahi Bala is a Professor of Soil Science and nd the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) of Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State. In this interview, speaks about Inoculant, a new technology that uses bacteria for nitrogen fixation, capab
What is Inoculant?
This is one thing that is relatively new in this environment. The inoculant is something that has been in practice for over 100 years. Though it is not common in Nigeria or West Africa, it is largely used in other parts of the world. Let me start from the basis, if you look at the atmosphere, about 80 percent of the composition of the air we breathe is nitrogen. This nitrogen is not something that is usable by the plants and when we are talking of nitrogen, it is a nutrient element that is required for body building by every living organism, whether bacteria, plant, animals or human beings. We human beings get this nitrogen through the eating of food containing protein such as soya-beans, cowpea, fish or meat products. The building block of the protein actually is the nitrogen so by the time we feed on the food, the by-chemical function in our body allows us to break these proteins until we get nitrogen nutrient for our body building. Plants do not need to take protein. Through the soil they actually pick up nitrogen in its raw form. The problem is that in most of the tropical soils, the nitrogen content is very low and that is why if you plant maize, you will find that if you don’t add either organic or manure or nitrogenous fertilizer, the maize may not grow to maturity. It will be stunted and it will be yellow and die because of the absence of nitrogen. But if you plant legume plant such as soya-beans, cowpea or groundnuts without fertiliser which most farmers do, they are still able to get something out of it. The difference between maize and leguminous plant is the fact that leguminous plant has a mechanism that allows it to harness this nitrogen in the air, they will be able to sensitise them for their own use and they do this by forming a symbiotic mutual association with bacteria in the soil that are able to fix this nitrogen in the air into their own system and then these bacteria are in the roots of these leguminous plants and, therefore, they provide nitrogen for use of the leguminous plants. But the problem we have with many of these soils is the bacteria that are able to do this are either not enough or they are not the types that are very efficient in fixing this nitrogen for the use of the leguminous plants.
How can the inoculant technology improve the agricultural output of small holder farmers?
Inoculant technology actually uses this particular mechanism to enhance the nitrogen fixing potentials of the plants. At the point of planting, we mix the inoculants with the seeds before planting the seed so that as the seed is germinating, it is already in contact with millions of these bacteria and, therefore, it simply forms this symbiotic association and it will be able to enhance its nitrogen fixing ability. That is all what the inoculants technology is all about. It is just to boost the
Remember, I told you that this is a new era. The N2Africa Project leverages on the existence of different varieties of soya-beans, cowpea and groundnuts that we already have in the country. What the project also does is trying those varieties with different types of inoculants because different companies produce different types of inoculants and then we try them in different agroecologies to see the pattern and frequency of response. That is how much of the nitrogen is fixed in a particular variety of plant and in a particular location. Essentially, that is what the research work is all about within the project. And we found since 2010 when we started this work that the response to inoculations, depending on the plant and the type of inoculants used, that it could be as low and as high as 6 percent and 50 percent respectively, depending on the agro-ecology. Because as we said, this inoculants rely on the fact that very little of the bacteria is in the soil or the bacteria in the soil are not efficient enough. What the inoculant does now is to introduce efficient strength, so where you have a particular location, where you have efficient strength, locally adoptable strength, chances to responses to inoculation are low as compared to another location where the efficient strength are not there or they are not there in large numbers in which case the response will be high. So, we have seen differences in terms of the magnitude of response but in general, response to the enhancement of yield could be as much as 50 percent as a result of inoculants use.
What is N2Africa Project?
N2Africa is an acronym for putting Nitrogen Fixation to work for Small Farmer Holders in Africa and it is a project that is funded by Bill and Melinda Gate foundation that provide a platform for scientists and development partners to provide existing technologies that harness the importance of legumes in using atmospheric nitrogen to improve the soil. It is also used to improve the nitrogen content, largely through the use of leguminous plants such as soya-beans, groundnuts, and cowpea, otherwise called beans. Essentially, that is what the project is all about. It allows us to use the existing technology that we know and worked, to be able to enhance productivity of farmers through increased food production and also improved soil fertility.