Nanotechnology – the next big thing – in agriculture!



For developing countries like Pakistan, agriculture sector is backbone of their economy. But today this sector faces multiple and diverse challenges in producing more food, fibre changing climate and urbanization. Other major issues also include the sustainable use of natural resources, depleting nutrients in soil and environmental issues like runoff and accumulation of fertilizers and pesticides. These problems will further get intensified when we would have to feed over 9 billion populations by 2050. Hence there will be an additional demand for agricultural products and their raw materials will soon be viewed as the foundation of commerce and manufacturing. To deal with this scenario, agriculture-dependent developing countries have to adopt more efficient and sustainable production methods.

So, the key is to adopt such a technology that can shape the modern agriculture in a more productive fashion that would ultimately lead to precision farming in a cost-effective way with the delivery of just the right amount of input at the right time.

Nanotechnology is a novel, innovative, interdisciplinary scientific approach that involves designing, development and application of materials and devices at molecular level in nanometer scale i.e at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers, a billionth of meter. It is a broadspectrum emerging field of science which has brilliant applications in basic and applied sciences. It will leave no field untouched by its captivating scientific applications and agriculture sector is no exception. The use of nanotechnology in agriculture is getting importance because its possible advantages vary from enhanced food values, reduced agricultural inputs, improved nutrition quality and longer shelf life.

Nano scale carriers

These are “smart” nano scale devices which can be deployed for the efficient delivery of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and plant growth regulators, etc. The nano scale carriers are designed in such a way that they can anchor the plant roots to the surrounding soil and organic matter. Hence leading to improve stability against degradation in the environment and ultimately reduce the amount to be applied.

Nano-herbicide for effective weed control

Weeds are big hazard in agriculture; these reduce the yield up to a great extent. So there is no other option except eradicating them. Nanotechnology has potential use to get rid of weeds by using Nano herbicides in an eco-friendly. Less amount of herbicide will be used if active ingredient is combined with a “smart” delivery system. Nano herbicides will be environment friendly too as these would eradicate weeds without leaving any toxic residues in soil and environment. Being very small these will blend with soil particles and prevent the growth of weed species that have become resistant to conventional herbicides.

Nano-pesticide

Plant pests are major factors in limiting crop yields. Conventional pest controlling methods include the use of over-the-counter pesticides, which have to be used in large amount which adds additional cost in crop production. Excess amount of pesticides also cause environmental and water pollution. So there is a need to use as much as minimum amount of pesticides to save the environment and reduce the cost in crop production. This can be achieved by increasing the retention time of pesticides with required efficiency. Persistence of pesticides in the initial stage of crop growth helps in bringing down the pest population below the threshold level so leading to an effective control for a longer period of time.

Smart dust:

This is the future agriculture, an army of nano-sensors would have been scattered like dust across the farms and field, working like the eyes, ears and noses of the farming world. These tiny wireless sensors are capable to communicate the information they sense. These are programmed and designed to respond various parameters like variation in temperature, humidity and nutrients. The distributed intelligence of smart particles can be networked to respond immediately to any change in environment. Hence giving an alert in advance to devise ways and means to deal with these environmental variations.

Disinfectants:

It is estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of the food produced on earth goes to waste before it can be consumed. The situation is even worse in case of fruits and vegetables. These losses can be reduced up to great extent by increasing the shelf life of perishable commodities. Nano particles can be used as disinfectants in food packaging and food engineering to increase the shelf life of food products.

Nano lamination:

Other significant factors include moisture, gases and lipids accumulation that cause the food to be perished. To protect the food from these agents, another workable option is nano lamination. Nano lamination is applied by Coating foods with Nano-laminates or simply by spraying it on the food surface Along with preservation of food they can improve the texture and preserve flavour, texture as well as colour of the food. Nano-laminates are thin, harmless food grade films which are prepared from edible polysaccharides, proteins, and lipids. These have proven to be good barriers against carbon dioxide and oxygen. While against moisture lipid-based nano-laminates are effective protectors.

Conclusion:

Nanotechnology can offer compelling value in future agriculture. Thanks to nanotechnology that the future food will be designed according to consumers choice with a better taste, texture, nutrient contents and a longer shelf life. The food will be wrapped in “smart” safety packaging that can detect contaminants and spoilage agents.

In the agricultural sector, it has phenomenal potential to facilitate and frame the next stage of precision farming techniques. It will increase agricultures potential to harvest higher yields in an eco-friendly way even in challenging environment. Globally, many countries have identified the potential of nanotechnology in the agri-food sector and are investing a significant amount in it. The adoption of nanotechnology in agri-food sector would play a crucial/ unparalleled role to feed the ever increasing population with declining natural resource.

The writers are associated with the National Center of Excellence in Molecular Biology, University of the Punjab. They can be reached at <azam.tks@hotmail.com>

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