Nanotechnologies and Agriculture
Image: cdw9 on Flickr
There are many challenges facing the farming and agriculture industries, including a growing demand for healthy, safe food; disease risks; and threats to agricultural and fishery production from changing weather patterns. The prediction is that nanotechnology will transform agriculture, changing the way food and other crops are produced, processed, packaged, transported, and consumed.
Tiny sensors and monitoring systems enabled by nanotechnologies will have a large impact on future precision farming methodologies. This technique makes use of computers, global satellite positioning systems, and remote sensing devices to measure highly localized environmental conditions thus determining whether crops are growing at maximum efficiency or precisely identifying the nature and location of problems. This can lower production costs and potentially increase production. Precision farming can also help to reduce agricultural waste and thus keep environmental pollution to a minimum.
Nanosensors could be distributed throughout a field where they can monitor soil conditions and crop growth, allowing an earlier response to environmental changes. They can be small enough to capture and measure individual proteins or even small molecules and nanoparticles or nanosurfaces can be engineered to trigger an electrical or chemical signal in the presence of specified bacteria, allowing pest or disease control at an early stage.
Smart delivery systems
There has, in recent years, been a growing awareness of the potential and, in some cases, proven risks of pesticide use. To maintain crop yields, integrated pest management systems, which mix traditional methods of crop rotation with biological pest control methods, are becoming popular and are already being employed in many countries. In the future, nanoscale devices with novel properties could be used to make these agricultural systems “smart”. For example, devices could be used to identify plant health issues before they become visible to the farmer. Such devices may be capable of responding to different situations by delivering chemicals in a controlled and targeted manner (in the same way as nanomedicines can be used for drug delivery in humans), or by alerting the farmer to the problem. In this way, smart devices can act as both preventive and early warning systems.
Technologies such as encapsulation and controlled release methods have revolutionised the use of pesticides and herbicides. Many companies already make formulations which contain nanoparticles that can be dissolved in water more effectively than existing products, thus increasing their activity and reducing input quantities. Nanoemulsions, which can be either water or oil-based and contain uniform suspensions of pesticidal or herbicidal nanoparticles, have many potential applications as disease and pest prevention measures.
Research is ongoing to make fertiliser and pesticide delivery systems which can respond to environmental changes. The ultimate aim is to tailor these products to release their cargo in a controlled manner in response to different signals (e.g. increases or reductions in heat or moisture). New research also aims to make plants use water, pesticides and fertilizers more efficiently, to reduce pollution and to make agriculture more environmentally friendly.
These approaches will ultimately allow enhanced productivity in agriculture by providing accurate information, thus helping farmers to make better decisions.
Managing risks and uncertainties
There is concern over the use of nanoparticles in the environment and in the production and manipulation of food. Only through research into the behavior of nanoparticles in the environment and rigorous pre-market evaluation of these innovations focusing on the effects of particle size, as well as their composition, can these concerns be addressed.
Are these applications currently available?
Nano-enabled crop management is an emerging field which is yet to be applied in the UK. However, use of nano encapsulation and controlled release pesticides and fertilizers and remote sensing devices is being made in some countries and this is expected to lead to the development of “smart” devices, able to detect early stage problems and respond to local crop conditions. These approaches will ultimately allow enhanced productivity in agriculture by providing accurate information, thus helping farmers to make better decisions.
Below is a SWOT analysis summarising Government understanding, from discussion with stakeholders, of the major strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the UK in this sector. Please help to steer future actions and shape the UK business environment by answering the questions on the right hand side of the page.
Nanotechnologies have the potential to help us meet increasing demands for sustainable agriculture and the plentiful supply of food. Growers stand to benefit, as do the industries which supply the products. Consumers are ultimately the downstream beneficiaries.
Societal concerns over the changing nature of agricultural practices have the potential to elicit the same issues as were raised in the GM debate.
Considerable potential for sustainable and environmentally beneficial agricultural practices, with producer, industry and wider societal benefits.
Further research is needed into the effects of nanomaterials on human health and the environment.
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