Editorial Feature

Nanotechnology in Sustainable Agriculture: Recent Developments, Challenges, and Perspectives

The development of agriculture is essential due to the rapid growth in population, creating a demand for food. Sustainable growth of the agricultural system using new and innovative techniques such as nanotechnology brings positive increases in agricultural production.

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Nanoparticles possess many unique properties, mainly because of their size: smaller size of nanomaterial has a larger surface area, thereby more activity. The development of the high-tech agricultural system with the use of engineered smart nanotools could be an excellent strategy to reduce and/or eliminate the influence of agrochemicals on the environment, as well as to enhance both the quality and quantity of yields. The use of nanotechnology can fulfill the greatest demand of the century, i.e., fast, reliable, and low-cost systems for the detection, monitoring, and diagnosis of biological host molecules in agricultural sectors.

Nanoparticles and their functions

  • Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs): It is a new form of carbon like a two-dimensional graphene sheet rolled into a tube. There are two main types of nanotubes, i.e., single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) and multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs). CNT nano-sponges containing sulfur and iron increases the efficiency in soaking up water contaminants such as pesticides, fertilizers, oil, and pharmaceuticals.
  • Quantum Dots (QDs): Semiconductor QDs has excellent fluorescence and possess size-tunable band energy. QDs at a lower concentration level reveal no detectable cytotoxicity for seed germination and seedling growth. Therefore, QDs can be utilized for live imaging in plant root systems to study its physiological processes.
  • Nanorods: The gold nanorods have the ability to transport growth regulator, auxin (2,4-D), however, it shows phytotoxicity toward plant at high concentration.
  • Micro- and Nanoencapsulation: Encapsulation is a process of coating a material with a homogeneous or heterogeneous matrix resulting in capsules having unique properties.
  • Nanoemulsions: These are formed by very small emulsion nanoscale droplets (oil/water system) with sizes of less than 100 nm.

Nanotechnology and agricultural sustainable development

Nanotechnology proves to be an efficient technique for managing resources of the agricultural field, drug delivery mechanisms in plants, and maintaining soil fertility. Recently, nanosensors are widely implemented in agriculture for monitoring contamination in soil and water. Following are some of the developments in nanotechnology for sustainable agriculture:

  • Nano fertilizers: Recently nano fertilizers have been commercially used in applications such as plant growth regulator and immunity enhancer. They contain essential elements (zinc, silica, titanium dioxide, iron etc.) that are required for high-quality agricultural yield.
  • Nanopesticides: Pests predominantly infect agricultural fields and cause havoc in agricultural produce. The formulation of nano encapsulated pesticides have led to a reduction in the dosage of pesticides. Thus, the development of non-toxic and potential pesticide delivery systems has not only increased global food production but also reduced the negative impacts of pesticides on the ecosystem.
  • Ecotoxicological Implications of the Nanoparticles (NPs): Metal NPs exert cytotoxicity depending on the charge at the membrane surface. In plants, nanoparticles enter the cellular system and translocate through the shoot system. These get accumulated in the various aerial parts of the plant and remain in the ecosystem through various trophic levels. After an accumulation of NPs in the plant system, there is a change in the rate of transpiration, respiration, photosynthesis, and translocation of food material.
  • Growth of Cultivated Plants and Its Ecotoxicological Sustainability: Plants like Lepidium sativum and Pisum sativum naturally accumulate several NPs of iron from its ore. This observation has initiated the use of polymeric NPs in the agricultural field, especially loaded with insecticides of plant origin.

Nanobiosensors

Many physical-chemical properties of nanoscale materials are exploited in the development of biosensors. A biosensor is a device that combines a biological recognition element with physical or chemical principles. Previous research has shown that the sensitivity and performance of biosensors can be improved by using nanomaterials through new signal transduction technologies. Recently, different natural and artificial bioreceptors have been developed and successfully applied.

Nanotechnologies in the food industry

Nanotechnology could add bioactive ingredients in foodstuff and maintain the quality.

  • Food Process: Recently, nanotechnology has been widely used in food processing, like using nanocarrier systems for delivery of nutrients and supplements, organic nano-sized additives for food, supplements, and animal feed. Many food products naturally contain NP, for example, milk contains casein, a form of milk protein present at the nanoscale or meat is made up of protein filaments that are also classified into nanomaterial groups. Commercially, KD Pharma BEXBACH GMBH (Germany) provides encapsulated Omega-3 fatty acids in two different forms—suspension and powder.
  • Food Packaging and Labeling: Recently, some packaging materials have been incorporated with “nanosensors” to detect the oxidation process in food. The technique is quite simple: when the oxidation occurs in the food package, NP-based sensors indicate the color change and information about the nature of the packed foods can be observed. Nanosensors help in food labeling and in combination with NP-based intelligent inks or reactive nanolayers may provide smart recognition of relevant food products.

Future Perspectives

Nanotechnology is a bright future. It possesses a very a unique place in the food supply chain (from the field to the dining table: crop production with the use of agro-chemicals such as nanofertilizers, nanopesticides, nanoherbicides, etc., precision farming techniques, packaging, labeling, etc.). This technology, in the long term, is certain to provide innovative and economic development routes for human nutrition worldwide.

Improvement of the agricultural system can be made by the implementation of nanotechnology.  Despite the availability of a lot of information about individual nanomaterials, the toxicity level of many NPs is still indefinable. Thus, the application of these nanoparticles is limited due to the lack of knowledge of risk assessments and its effects on human health. The development of a comprehensive database and an alarm system, as well as international cooperation for regulation and legislation, are necessary for the complete utilization of this technology.

Source:

Prasad, R., Bhattacharyya, A., & Nguyen, Q. D. (2017). Nanotechnology in Sustainable Agriculture: Recent Developments, Challenges, and Perspectives. Frontiers in Microbiology, 8. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2017.01014

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Priyom Bose, PhD

Written by

Priyom Bose, PhD

Priyom graduated from the University of Madras, India, with a PhD in Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology.

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