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Will Nanotechnology Change the Narrative for Agriculture and Food Systems?

by Agritech Digest
nantechnology-scaled agriculture and food systems

Nanotechnology has been researched to exhibit the potential to positively impact agriculture and food systems by minimising the adverse effects of agricultural practices on the environment and human health, while increasing farming productivity.

By Oyewole Okewole

The quest to ensure global food security and enhance the utilisation of natural resources like land, water, minerals, air, and forests, for a sustainable food system is an all-important challenge to be considered at all levels of governance. It is vital to create new processes and systems to provide feed for livestock, food for human consumption, fibre, and fuel for a global population projected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100

Providing these required needs for human survival will necessitate intensifying of resources such as land and water. Further intensification of these resources will produce even more complications because these resources are fast diminishing in their productivity and effectiveness to cater for the increasing population. The pressure over natural resources has reached critical levels that international agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) are constantly seeking scientific research to provide innovative and sustainable solutions. 

Principal challenges in balancing the need for food and energy requirements will be one of the situations to be faced in the coming years. Some years ago, I had a discussion with a professor in agricultural engineering on the need to produce ethanol as biofuel from cassava roots. He explained to me that conflicting interest in the use of resources for producing cassava, its food derivatives, and biofuel will limit the full adoption of biofuel in the coming years, especially in regions where cassava is a staple crop for food. Cassava root (Manihot esculenta) is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics after rice and maize. It provides the basic diet for over half a billion people. He further explained that more resources will be required to produce cassava roots to feed the population while simultaneously producing to supply the bio-energy industry. 

Nanotechnology has been researched to possess the potential to positively impact the agriculture and food system by minimising the adverse effects of agricultural practices on the environment and human health while increasing farming productivity. It has also been realised that nanotechnology can improve food security, play significant roles in minimising post-harvest losses, and enhance efficiency along the food value chains. Nanotechnology is a rapidly developing field with prospects to provide solutions to the sustainability challenges in agriculture and food systems. It is also one of the six key enabling technologies, as acknowledged by the European Commission, that contributes to industrial application in several fields towards producing a greener economy. The application of nanotechnology in agriculture is still relatively marginal and emerging compared to other fields like medicine, materials, and energy. Research is being conducted to further explore other areas of applications. Leading countries in nanotechnology are China, India, United States of America, Iran, and South Korea, as they release thousands of research articles about the innovation. 

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(Read also: How Well are Advancing Technologies in Agriculture Being Adopted Globally?)

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology involves the study and control of matter at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels. It is the science and engineering of objects in nanometres, usually between 1 and 100 nanometres, using a nanometre scale. A nanometre is a unit of measurement equal to one billionth of a metre. It measures microscopic dimensions and is used in expressing scales of molecules, atoms, and the wavelengths of higher frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum.C:\Users\PROCONTEC LTD\Desktop\Agritech Digest Kenneth\EM_Spectrum_Properties_edit.svg.png

Different lengths with respect to the electromagnetic spectrum. Source: Wikipedia

Materials may exhibit unusual properties at the nano-level. When some properties are altered at this scale, such as the size of a particle, it can change the colour of the material. The symbol for nanometre is nm. 

Applications in Agriculture and Food System

i. Food Industry: Nanotechnology-based applications have justified the growing requirements for using nanoparticles in food biotechnology, food packaging, processing, and safety, through the detection of pathogens in food, and also to increase the shelf-life of food and food products (Singh, et. al 2017).

One of the areas nanotechnology is being used in food systems is in storage and packaging processes. For example, clay nanocomposites provide an impenetrable barrier for gases like oxygen and carbon-dioxide in lightweight bottles, packaging films, and cartons. Silver nanoparticles embedded in plastic storage containers kill bacteria. Nanotechnology is also used to enhance the characteristics of food such as the texture and flavour. For example, nanomaterials with greater surface area can be used to improve how foods like mayonnaise can be spread. They are also used as support in the food processing industry through the use of nano-fabricated filters, sieves, membranes, nanocomposite-based nanosized adsorbents, and catalytic agents (Bartolucci, 2017). Nanomaterials are also used in food packaging to modify and limit impact forces or hindrances occasioned due to the handling and transportation of soft textured products, thereby reducing the use of valued raw ingredients and waste production (Sozer and Kokini, 2009).

ii. Agricultural Production: Nanotechnology has been discovered to play a significant role in intensifying sustainability in agricultural production. The use of nano-fertilisers, nano-remediation, nano-biosensors, and nano-pesticides, are some of the prospects for agricultural production. Nano-fertilisers increase nutrient usage efficiency, minimise nutrient losses, decrease soil toxicity, reduce the ill effects connected with overdose, and decrease the frequency of soil treatments.  Nanotechnology also provides a solution to environmental contamination and tolerance of pests and pathogens to chemical pesticides. 

Nanopesticides use conveyor molecules that are nano-sized. Their sizes support proper distribution on the pest surface. The characteristics of nano-pesticides offer enhanced properties for effectiveness and efficiency, uniform leaf coverage and enhanced soil properties. They are also applied for excellent weed control. 

Potential benefits of using nanopesticides. Sourced from Springer

Other applications in agricultural production are in the development of intelligent nanosystems for the immobilisation of nutrients and their release in soils to minimise leaching, improve nutrient uptake by plants, and mitigate eutrophication by reducing oxygen transfer to groundwater ( Liu and Lal, 2015).

Nanomaterials are also used to stimulate plant growth by enhancing nutrient uptake (Khot et. al., 2012). Nanosensors are applied in crop protection for the identification of diseases and residues of agrochemicals. Nanodevices are used for the genetic engineering of plants, plant disease diagnostics, poultry production, animal health, animal breeding, and post-harvest management. Nanosensors that estimate soil water tension in real time may be coupled with autonomous irrigation controllers. It allows for sustainable irrigation management based on drying soils, with respect to the effect of the climate and crop growth complexity models (De Medeiros et al., 2001). With the applications of nanotechnology, it is only a matter of before it will eventually change the narrative in agriculture and food systems.  

There are however differences and similarities between biotechnology and nanotechnology as they are sometimes wrongly considered the same and consequently used interchangeably.

(Read also: The Future of Food Production is Promising with These Innovative Advancing Technologies)

Differences and Similarities between Biotechnology and Nanotechnology.

According to Dr.Liji Thomas, nanotechnology deals with nanomaterials which are essentially man-made while biotechnology considers bio-materials which involve life cells and tissues like plant and animal cells, viruses, etc. Essentially, both technologies operate with different nature of materials.

Biotechnology applies itself to life sciences while nanotechnology usually entails computational advances, better electronic performance, production, and storage of energy for various purposes.

Biotechnology essentially works with biomolecules within a range of 3-15nm in size. It is applied in human and plant cells that measure up to 25 microns and 100 microns respectively while nanotechnology work with materials usually less than 100nm in size.

Their similarities are indicated in their overlap where they could be referred to as nanobiotechnology and bionanotechnology. These two overlaps are completely different in their operations and processes.

Nanobiotechnology is the technology that integrates nano-molecules into biological systems and in the process miniaturises biotechnology solutions to nanometre sizes. In this operation, biomolecules are added to the outside of nanoparticles to produce and make use of specific developed molecules for unique intentions. These processes form hybrid nanostructures and are principally used to make biosensors or image body parts. Bionanotechnology entails the technology of producing new nanostructures based on biomolecules that are created for man-made applications. The building blocks out of which the nanostructures are made are from antibodies, nucleic acids or other live molecules compared to nanotechnology which utilises non-living materials.

Oyewole Okewole is an agricultural project development specialist. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Cover image from This Is Plastic

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