The Environmental Protection Agency and USDA have launched a competition that seeks to determine how effective and efficient certain fertilizers are at delivering nutrients to corn with reduced environmental impact.

The competition consists of two challenges: In the initial stage, testing will be conducted on existing enhanced-efficiency fertilizers “currently on or near-market that meet or exceed certain environmental and agro-economic criteria,” according to EPA.

The second stage seeks to identify “concepts for novel technologies for fertilizers and other product technology innovations that can reduce the environmental effects from modern agriculture while maintaining or increasing crop yields,” EPA said.

The first part carries no monetary prizes, while the second has a prize pool of $65,000.

“The shared goal here is to accelerate the development of next-generation fertilizers for corn production that can either maintain or increase crop yields while reducing environmental impacts to our air, land, and water,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said.

EPA defines EEFs as “new formulations that control fertilizer release or alter reactions that reduce nutrient losses to the environment.”

“Many products are in this space,” said TFI’s Lara Moody, vice president of stewardship and sustainability programs, mentioning urease and nitrification inhibitors and polymer-coated urea as some that are in the general category of slow- or controlled-release fertilizers aimed at increasing nutrient use efficiency.

Companies have done a lot of work on the effectiveness of these products, Moody said, but there needs to be a better understanding of their agronomic and environmental benefits to spur increased adoption on the farm.

“The first challenge is about bringing to light the agronomic and environmental impact of these products,” she said, adding that it will allow for comparisons between products under similar conditions to better inform their benefits.

Moody said the focus is on corn because that’s where the greatest impacts can be achieved.

“This is a great opportunity to partner with USDA and EPA in developing new technologies that will help farmers advance their sustainability efforts,” Kevin Ross, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said Wednesday.

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Reducing the impact of fertilizers has been a focus of researchers and the ag and environmental communities for decades. Wheeler said at the announcement of the challenges that “if successful,” they will result in “lower cost to farmers and consumers while at the same time lowering the negative impacts excess nitrogen and phosphorus have on our environment.”

“In some areas excess nutrients can threaten drinking water sources,” Wheeler said. Nitrogen and phosphorus leaching and runoff have contributed to harmful algal blooms in water bodies throughout the country.

For the first challenge, dubbed “EEFs: Environmental and Agronomic Challenge,” EPA listed the following as “qualities of an ideal solution”:

  • Compatible with existing corn farming machinery and practices;
  • Reduces N and P leaching and runoff by 45% or more;
  • Reduces NH3 volatilization by 25% or more;
  • Reduces N2O emissions by 25% or more;
  • Does not leave any toxic residue after degradation;
  • Increases yield;
  • Is estimated to be a net profit for farmers (i.e. the revenue from yield increases offset the up-front cost increases for the new technology);
  • Has good environmental and agronomic performance under a range of environmental conditions;
  • Is widely available and potentially applicable to other crops.

In addition to TFI and NCGA, other collaborators on the project include The Nature Conservancy and the International Fertilizer Development Center. The deadline to submit materials and documentation for the first challenge is Oct. 30. For the second, it’s Nov. 30.

An informational webinar is scheduled for Sept. 24 from 10-11 a.m.

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