Better, more productive, farming through nanotechnology

Advanced technologies used in modern medicine enable healthcare professionals to control and target the delivery of medications to specific cells in the body. Research scientists are now experimenting with employing similar technologies and techniques in agriculture to improve quality and quantity of farming outputs that will be needed to meet increasing global food demands.

In the latest such research published recently, scientists at the University of California, Riverside and at the Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, have highlighted some of the best-known strategies for improving agriculture with nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term for the study and design of nano-sized products. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Extensive studies have been conducted on using nanotechnology to deliver drugs to specific cells in the body that need them most. However, similar studies on using nanotechnology in agriculture have so far not been tried on a large scale.

Currently the techniques employed to deliver agrochemicals to agricultural crops and plants are inefficient, for instance, nearly half of all fertilizer applied on farms is wasted as it does not reach the targeted crops, instead they end up harming the environment. The wastage is even worse in the case of pesticides, where it has been found that only 5 percent of applied pesticides reach their intended targets, with the rest ending up contaminating the environment.

Agriculture currently accounts for up to 28 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Ironically, the role of agricultural GHG emission also speeds up global warming that leads to extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts that cause agriculture outputs to suffer. The use of nanotechnology in agriculture could enhance the delivery of fertilizers and other essential nutrients, improve plant resilience to adverse conditions, and help raise global agricultural output.

In their review, the researchers highlight specific approaches borrowed from nanomedicine that could be used to deliver pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to specific biological targets. These include coating nanomaterials with sugars or peptides that recognize specific proteins on plant cells and organelles. Such innovative techniques allow scientists to take the existing molecular machinery of the plant and guide desired chemicals to where the plant needs it, for example to sites of plant pathogen infections.

Nano-enabled precision delivery of necessary elements to plants can potentially transform agriculture, increasing and sustaining global food production. However, there are several critical technical challenges that need to be overcome before benefits of these techniques can be fully realized, said the scientists involved in the new study.

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