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Best News Ever in Agriculture? Or Utter Bullshit?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 27, 2013

Here’s how The Telegraph (UK) pitches the big news yesterday from the University of Nottingham:

You may never need to put fertiliser on your plants again.

Scientists have invented a technology that allows plants to fertilise themselves by obtaining nitrogen from the air.

Almost all plants rely on nitrogen from the soil to grow, but few are able to use it directly from the air and so rely upon manure or synthetic fertiliser.

However, biologists at the University of Nottingham have discovered a form of bacteria found in sugar cane juice that traps this nitrogen by itself.  (To read the rest of the Telegraph article click here. )

And here’s the tirade blogger and University of California at Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen launched after I passed the press release along to him yesterday morning:

Well, this is one heck of a science-by-press release case.

Was pointed to this press release: World-Changing Technology Enables Crops to Take Nitrogen from the Air which comes to us from the University of Nottingham.  It makes some really bold claims like


A major new technology has been developed by The University of Nottingham, which enables all of the world’s crops to take nitrogen from the air rather than expensive and environmentally damaging fertilisers

Eisen goes on to conclude:

The only problem is – they don’t present any evidence.  None.  No data.  No paper.  No poster.  Nothing.  It is simply a press release with a bunch of words. Ridiculous.  I think I am going to announce I have a way to not only get all crops to fix nitrogen, but that it will work by telepathy.  This is one of the worst science-by-press-release cases I have ever ever seen.   (To savor the whole tirade, click here.)

So is the best news ever in the history of agriculture?  Or utter bullshit?

Until sometimes produces actual evidence, I side with Eisen, partly because he’s a far more reliable source than The Telegraph, which doesn’t even bother with the standard procedure of seeking comments from other experts in the field.  But I agree mainly because the University of Nottingham was stupid enough to produce a press release on such a world-changing topic without even attempting to link to a scientific publication in support of its sweeping conclusions.

That’s just a recipe for bad science.  But please comment to let me know what you think.


2 Responses to “Best News Ever in Agriculture? Or Utter Bullshit?”

  1. wasn’t sure if I had permission to name you as my source … but I will add that to my blog now that I know …

  2. vdinets said

    What kind of journalist wouldn’t even google “nitrogen fixing by plants” before posting such crap?

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