The Role of Nanotechnology in the Improvement of Food Production

Nutrient deficiency in food production is seriously affecting human health, especially those in  the rural areas.

By Rafia Naveed

Nanotechnology may become the most sustainable approach to alleviating this challenge. Recent works show that nanofertilizers are easily absorbed by the plant. Although there are some toxicity issues associated with the use of nanoparticles in crop. Biologically synthesized nanoparticles are now preferred for agricultural purposes. This would avoid the concerns associated with toxicity, in addition to being pollution free.

The quest to apply nanotechnology in agriculture arises from the fact that human population is constantly on the rise, which requires more food. Population survey has estimated about 9.6 billion people by the end of 2050. Farm lands are losing their fertility due to human activities and societal change in lifestyle. This affects the production of crops and could lead to famine and hunger. Thus, efforts are necessary to improve plants for enhanced production. Nanotechnology serves as the latest technology for precision agriculture. Due to which strategies are formulated and channeled towards meeting with food demands of the increasing human population.

Nano fertilizers

According to recent research works, nanotechnology has the possibility to revolutionize agricultural systems. Nano fertilizers, due to their high surface area to volume ratio, are more effective than conventional fertilizers. The components of nano fertilizers may include zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnONPs), silica, zinc oxide, gold nanorods, Al2O3, TiO2, CeO2, and FeO. The success of using nanomaterials as fertilizers in plant growth depends on the species of the plants and some other factors such as the size, concentration, composition and chemical properties of nano materials.

Nanomaterials are of unique properties. It results from their low particle size, large surface to volume ratio and excellent optical properties. Human population is growing and likewise crop production should also grow. Fertilizers have improved the varieties of fertilizers in form of nano fertilizers. Soil absorbed them to enhance the quality of the soil and improved the growth of the plant. Nanofertilizers can triple the effectiveness of the nutrients and reduce the requirement of chemical fertilizers. They make the crops drought and disease resistant and are less hazardous to the environment. Plants can easily absorb them due to their high surface area to volume ratio. These factors determine the level of bio-accessibility by the plants from the soil. Series of reactions like oxidation and recombination may take place to provide the plants with the right micronutrients. The plants not only grow but also accumulate such nutrients, which fulfills the gap of nutrient deficiency. Porous materials or the soil adsorb metals and anionic nanoparticles, which makes them available as food nutrients or even contaminants when not desirable. In recent times, some researchers have developed a nanofertilizer called “Nano-Leucite Fertilizer”, which is eco-friendly. It could reduce nutrient loss in food, with overall increase in crop and food production. In a nutshell, nanofertilizers might be the best thing that could happen in agricultural revolution. As they have the potentials of enhancing soil fertility in nutrient deficient soil.

Future of Nanotechnology in Plant Improvement

Sustainable agriculture, food availability and nutrient security are among the key sustainable development goals of the century. Nanotechnology plays important role in improving the nutrient availability of plants. It also minimizes their losses on agricultural soils. Many processes occur in the ecosystem during plant production and subsequent consumption of the food and their digestion. However, they may also have some toxic effects on the environment when applied as fertilizers, pesticides, food packaging, etc. The argument now is: Do the pros outweigh the cons? The answer is obviously “yes”, as there are new developments towards using eco-friendly materials. Moreover, plants may absorb the required materials and leave the rest in the soil. However, it is not clear whether the absorption of toxic materials take place or they become non-toxic. Regardless ecosystem would have these toxic components.

There is a drift from the use of toxic chemicals in synthesis of nanomaterials to the use of biological organisms. These biological organisms have special functional groups that affect the transformation of materials into their nanoforms. The merit of this novel technology towards agriculture is that there is reclamation of lost nutrients in the soil; herb and pest control using green nanochemicals; nutrient absorption; security in the food crops; nanofood and nutrient delivery; food packaging; etc. It is an overall development of the agricultural sector starting from the field to the well-being of individuals that feed on the crops. All branches will use this future technology. It is gaining serious attention already, but much work is still left. Nanobarcodes of gold and silver stripes are used in crop and food packaging. This is important due to the people’s fear of using nanoproducts. In biosensing, graphene oxide is applied to enhance the detection of aflatoxins in food materials. In agriculture, the activities are more beneficial before and after crop planting.

Conclusion

Despite the reports on the endangering nature of some nanoparticles, nanotechnology will play role to change the agricultural sector for the better. Its advantages could be greater than those of nuclear energy. The reasons include their manipulative ability that enhances the physicochemical properties; their bioavailability, and easy process ability; and their low toxicity compared to other compounds. To make this field of study more applicable to agriculture, the plant-mediated biological methods which utilize raw materials such as waste vegetables, plant extracts, flowers, roots and fruit peels should be expanded. There should be regulations on the nanoproducts to protect the environment, the health of the users and the entire public health. We must set up nanotechnology industries to provide product information. It is now time to take it out of the laboratory stage into the field. We must apply nanomaterials to supply the required nutrients to the soil during land preparation. Such practices could greatly improve nutritional health, food security and sustainability, and the environment, especially in developing countries.

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