Biological Nitrogen Fixation College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Biological Nitrogen Fixation UH Seal Unversity of Hawaii at Manoa
Project History
Training Resources
Inoculant Technology
Project Impact

Project History

In 1975 at the peak of the oil crisis, national economies worldwide contended with high costs of fossil fuels.  The nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between legumes and rhizobia was recognized as an attractive, low-cost alternative to petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers for increased crop production in the tropics.  Legumes are one of the three most important plant-based food sources globally, and many families rely upon legumes as a primary source dietary protein.  Since nitrogen is a key element fl all protein, BNF could have immediate benefits to the welfare of families in developing countries.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) drew on expertise in the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to establish an interdisciplinary unit called NifTAL (Nitrogen Fixation by Tropical Agricultural Legumes).  NifTAL was dedicated to the application of technologies based on BNF to international development goals.  NifTAL's ultimate purpose was to help farmers maximize BNF inputs to their cropping systems, and thereby increase the production and quality of high protein foods while reducing their dependence on expensive nitrogen fertilizers.

The initial USAID contract ran from 1975 to 1982. During this period NifTAL built its resource capability to meet the needs of developing country legume programs for research support, information and technical services, and training in BNF. NifTAL was designated a United Nations Microbiological Resource Center (MIRCEN), and a rhizobial germplasm resource was collected and tested to identify effective symbionts for 50 target legumes. In 1979, NifTAL initiated a campaign to gather definitive field data on legume response to inoculation with these rhizobia throughout the tropics. A network of more than 200 collaborators participated in NifTAL's International Network of Legume Inoculation Trials (INLIT) to conduct standardized experiments in countries around the globe. This effort verified the benefits of legume inoculation in many parts of the tropics, and promoted global awareness of BNF.

From 1982 to 1986, NifTAL continued to develop appropriate BNF technologies for tropical agriculture. Technology transfer and training activities increased, particularly those related to production and use of inoculants. In 1983, the BNF Resource Center (BNFRC) for South and Southeast Asia was established to extend NifTAL's efforts through a regional center. During this contract period, NifTAL also initiated WREN, the Worldwide Rhizobial Ecology Network of select researchers to conduct standardized field trials to link the response to inoculation to measurable environmental parameters.

USAID continued to support NifTAL through a Cooperative Agreement known as Improved BNF Through Biotechnology. This award acknowledged the expanding demand for NifTAL's services, and the need to continue improving the efficiency of the symbiotic nitrogen fixing systems.

During this period, one of NifTAL's major accomplishments was the development of models to predict when, where, and to what extent legumes will respond to inoculation. NifTAL also strengthened its capacity to transfer BNF technology to extension personnel, and thereby forged another conduit through which NifTAL expertise can serve developing country farmers. NifTAL was instrumental in the establishment of inoculant production facilities throughout the tropics, and developed tools for more efficient and economic inoculant production and quality control.

From 1992 through 2002, NifTAL became a member of the consortium of US universities and resource management organizations belonging to the Soil Management Collaborative Research Program (TropSoils CRSP). Under the current USAID contract Nitrogen Fixation for Agriculture and Agribusiness contract, NifTAL is maintaining an integrated, multidisciplinary strategy which combines research, human resource development, outreach activities, and support of agribusiness.  Under the current contract, NifTAL's focus areas include:
  • A continued commitment to meeting the needs of the US and developing country inoculant production industry, with increased emphasis on serving the private sector through improved production, quality control, distribution, and promotion of inoculant products.
  • The integration of NifTAL's legume management research into information synthesis through simulation models and decision support systems.
  • Increased collaboration with CGIARs to provide regional BNF expertise and augment resources.
  • New training and communications efforts to meet a broader spectrum of clients in nutrient management, technology extension through private voluntary organizations and nongovernment organizations, and market and enterprise development.
  • Emphasis on assessments of the economic impacts of BNF technologies on national scales.
Continuing Need for Applied BNF (biological nitrogen fixation)
We are facing one of the most pressing dilemmas in our history - the dilemma of sustainability. How will humanity meet the needs of an exploding population base and still maintain the environmental resources that ultimately support us?

Responsible nitrogen use in agriculture is key to sustainability. Economic and environmental considerations dictate that we must exploit biological alternatives that can augment nitrogen fertilizers. NifTAL's initial goal to promote BNF for the welfare of farmers in the developing tropics continues to be relevant today as legume BNF is recognized as a cornerstone of sustainable agricultural systems. In addition, BNF is being exploited to benefit agroforestry systems, soil conservation, and ecosystem restoration programs. We continue to offer the resources in the hope they can meet the multiple challenges of sustainable agricultural and economic development and the preservation of environmental quality in developing countries.