Nano urea in field trials: Ingredients of fertiliser a mystery

The burden of subsidy on fertilisers has increased from Rs 80,000 crore to Rs 2 lakh crore since the Russia-Ukraine war

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Tuesday 16 May 2023
A farmer holds a bottle of nano liquid urea at IFFCO center in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Vivek Mishra / CSE
A farmer holds a bottle of nano liquid urea at IFFCO center in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Vivek Mishra / CSE A farmer holds a bottle of nano liquid urea at IFFCO center in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Vivek Mishra / CSE

Nano liquid urea was launched two years ago by the Indian Farmers and Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO), but still, not much is known about the fertiliser. Now, even the ingredients in the fertiliser are a mystery.

While farmers report no effect on the yield and higher input costs with using it, research data for at least three years for even a single crop is not available for the nano fertiliser. 

“The process of preparing nano liquid urea is a patented process. We cannot make this information public,” the biggest cooperative in the world, IFFCO said in a statement to Down To Earth. This means that, unlike conventional urea, the raw materials used in nano liquid urea are not known.

India regularly faces a shortage of conventional granular urea due to the scarcity and high price of its raw materials. The burden to subsidise it, thus, falls on the Centre’s shoulders. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cost of urea raw ingredients has increased considerably. 

According to an estimate, the burden of subsidy given on fertilisers has increased from Rs 80,000 crore to Rs 2 lakh crore. However, the government has not transferred this inflation to the farmers, but nano liquid urea is being promoted over conventional urea. 

An agricultural expert, on the condition of anonymity, said it is likely nano liquid urea was promoted in a hurry, as the government did not want to transfer the burden of subsidy on the farmers due to a few upcoming elections in the country. 

IFFCO claimed a 500-millilitre spray bottle of nano urea can allegedly substitute a full 45-kilogramme bag of the conventional fertiliser. A 45 kg bag of urea costs around Rs 3,000 and is sold to farmers at a subsidised cost of Rs 242. A 500 ml bottle of nano urea used to cost Rs 240 and currently is sold at Rs 225 per bottle. 

A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Chemicals and Fertilisers, in a March 2023 report, said using 45 to 90 kg less urea per acre will save farmers Rs 266-532. The reduction will also reduce the subsidy burden on the government. 

However, ground visits by DTE found that farmers who faced losses in wheat production due to untimely rain were worried after using nano urea as it is not showing any results. Many farmers said they had to apply conventional urea to the crops with nano liquid urea, increasing their input costs. 

Apart from nano liquid urea, micronutrients with the new technology like nano copper and nano zinc were also issued to the farmers in 2021. A new nano fertiliser, nano diammonium phosphate (DAP), was launched in in March 2023. However, farmers know very little about nano DAP or the micronutrients, DTE found.

Urea is one of the most concentrated nitrogenous fertilisers, which readily converts to ammonia in the soil — an essential macronutrient for plant functions. Nano urea contains nitrogen “in the form of granules that are a hundred-thousand times finer than a sheet of paper,” claimed IFFCO’s website.

The fertiliser is a foliar spray, meaning it should only be used once leaves arrive on the crops. Nano urea is being used in India and is also exported to Sri Lanka. 

IFFCO started research on nano fertilisers in 2017, according to the report by the Parliamentary panel. Its lab testing began in 2018 and field trials in the 2019 Rabi season. 

It was notified on February 24, 2021 and its commercial production started in June 2021 from IFFCO’s Kalol, Gandhinagar plant. The online sale of nano liquid urea began in July 2021. Commercial production started on August 1, 2021. 

In the financial year 2022-23, 32.7 million bottles of 500 ml capacity were produced. By 2025, it has been targeted to produce 440 million bottles. The burden of conventional urea will be reduced by 50 per cent through nano urea, said the parliamentary panel report.  

A healthy plant has 1.5 to 4 per cent nitrogen. Spraying of nano urea instead of conventional urea at the critical stage of standing crop might meet the nitrogen requirement of the plant and give higher yields. 

Claims that spraying of nano urea will reduce wastage are false, said N Raghuram from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi. Raghuram is the head of the Centre for Sustainable Nitrogen and Nutrient Management. 

A joint research paper on nano fertilisers and their role in sustainable agriculture by IFFCO scientists Yogendra Kumar, Ken Tiwari, Tarunendu Singh and Ramesh Raliya in the journal of GKV Society, Agra, in June 2021 states that the use of target-based nano nitrogen spraying on leaves can be used for urea.

This process can prevent losses as well as increases nutrient absorption efficiency. Apart from this, it also offers solutions to environmental issues like soil, air and water pollution. Through this, a better crop is produced with less nitrogen use.

However, Raghuram said there is a possibility of soil, air and water pollution even with nano urea. The effect of nano particles on the environment can be understood only after a long time.

Scientists of Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Krishi Vigyan Kendra Bichpuri associated with this project are also sceptical about the definite behaviour of the fertiliser. 

This report is part of a series on nano urea. The first part can be read here, the second part can be read here and the third can be found here

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