By Will Soutter
Nanotechnology has been heralded as a new industrial revolution - as in the 18th and 19th centuries, nanotech has the potential to bring about drastic changes in the agricultural industry. The development of new nanotech-based tools and equipment may help to increase efficiency and overcome challenges faced by the agricultural industry.
Some of these challenges include the increasing threats to agricultural production and risks of plant-related diseases. The agricultural sector will benefit greatly from nanotech-based tools to detect diseases in a rapid manner, improve the ability of plants to absorb nutrients and promote molecular treatment of diseases.
Modern agriculture makes extensive use of chemicals to stimulate growth and inhibit pests and disease. Nanotechnology could help to make these substances simultaneously more effective and less harmful to the environment. Image credit: Ohio State University.
The process of maximizing crop yields and minimizing the usage of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides through efficient monitoring procedures is referred to as precision farming. Precision farming utilizes remote sensing devices, computers and global satellite positioning systems to analyze various environmental conditions in order to determine the growth of plants under these conditions and identify problems related to crops and their growing environments. Precision farming helps determine plant development, soil conditions, usage of water and chemicals, fertilizers and seeding and controls environmental pollution to a minimum extent by reducing agricultural waste.
The implementation of nanotechnology in the form of small sensors and monitoring devices will create a positive impact on the future use of precision farming methodologies. Nanotech-enabled systems help in increasing the use of autonomous sensors that are linked into GPS systems to provide efficient monitoring services focused on crop growth and soil conditions. The usage of smart sensors in precision farming will result in increased agricultural productivity by providing farmers with accurate information that will enable them to make accurate decisions related to plant growth and soil suitability.
There are many regulatory restrictions placed on pesticides in agriculture today. Pesticides such as DDT, which have caused extreme environmental hazards, have increased public and regulatory awareness of the use of chemicals in farming, shifting the industry's focus on to the use of integrated pest management systems, combining smarter and more targeted use of chemicals with granular monitoring of plant health.
These agricultural systems can make excellent use of nanotech-enabled “smart” devices that can perform a dual role of being a preventive and early warning system. These devices can identify plant related health issues even before they become visible to the farmers and simultaneously provide remedial measures. These nanotech systems can also be used to monitor the delivery of chemicals.
User-friendly and eco-friendly nano delivery systems for nutrients and pesticides have started to find their place in the market. These can allow the use of pesticides with the absolute minimum risk of environmental damage. Companies have implemented nanoemulsions in commercial pesticide products. Syngenta, a leading agrochemical corporation, produces a quick-release microencapsulated product, which is available under the name Karate® ZEON.
Nanotechnologists are hoping that nanotechnology will transform the entire food industry by bringing about changes in the production, processing, packaging, transportation and consumption of food. Usage of nanotechnology in these processes ensures safety of food products, creates a healthy food culture and enhances the nutritional quality of foods.
Smart food packaging systems can be developed using nanotechnology that in turn increases the shelf-life of food products by developing active antifungal and antimicrobic surfaces, improving heat-resistance and mechanical properties, modifying the permeation behavior of foils and detecting and signaling biochemical and microbiological changes.
A number of companies have started to develop Smart Packaging systems - one such company is Bayer Polymers, who developed the Durethan KU2-2601 packaging film whose key purpose is to prevent drying of food content and protect the food content from oxygen and moisture. This packaging film is made from a number of silicate nanoparticles.
Usage of nanotechnology in food processing is creating a tremendous impact on the development of interactive and functional foods that deliver nutrients and respond to the body’s requirements in an efficient manner. Nanocapsules are added into food products in order to deliver nutrients and nanoparticles when added to food increase the absorption of nutrients.
An increasing number of companies are researching on additives that can be easily absorbed by the body and increase product shelf life. Biodelivery Sciences International developed coiled nanoparticles called nanocochleates that deliver nutrients and omega fatty acids to cells without causing any changes to the taste and color of food.
With nanotechnology gaining recognition in the agricultural and food sectors, scientists and experts in the scientific field have recently showcased their nanotechnology expertise to farmers in Africa. Three significant innovations were demonstrated:
- The scientists have planned to develop a plastic storage bag lined with nanoparticles that are capable of reacting with oxygen and preventing cassava from rotting. In this way, the African farmers can prolong the shelf life of cassava and prevent wastage of this vegetable.
- A milk container was designed with a nanopatterned, antimicrobial coating that helps the diary farmers in Africa to preserve milk for a prolonged time period as they take almost a whole day to reach the cooling centers. These nanotechnology-based milk containers replace the currently used plain plastic bags.
- The scientists have also planned to develop nanopatterned paper sensors to detect bovine pregnancy in order to enable the dairy farmers determine if their cows will run dry without milk due to udder infection or pregnancy.
The European Union’s Horizon 2020 research program has invested heavily in the development of nanotechnology products including other advanced technologies. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference also highlighted the benefits of using nanotechnology to secure food products in view of the growing population in the entire world.
Despite this urge to increase the usage of nanotechnology in food products, scientists behind a Swiss-funded study have highlighted the fact that the potential risks of using nanotechnology must be considered, as fertilizers and plant protection products containing nanoparticles may harm the earth’s biosystems. It is important that nano-enhanced products wich as these go through the same rigorous approval processes that are applied to conventional pesticides and fertilizers, and that care is taken in their use to minimize their release into groundwater.
Nanotechnology will play a vital role in the development of the agricultural sector, as it is capable of being used in agricultural products that protect plants and monitor plant growth and detect diseases. Scientists have been working towards exploring new applications of nanotechnology in agriculture and the food industry - if these discoveries are applied sensibly, the environment, the agricultural sector and the food industry will indeed see tremendous changes for the better in the coming years.
- Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food: Nanoforum Report
- Scientists eye nanotechnologies to boost crop yields - EurActiv.com
- In the World: Nanotech on the farm - MIT News Office