Nanotechnology: Solution to agricultural challenges
In agriculture, nanotechnology allows for the introduction of new, effective fertilizers by increasing the ability of crops to absorb nutrients. Nanoparticles are referred to as ultrafine particles that are measured in nanosize ranging between 1 and 100 nanometres in diameter [a nanometre is a unit of length equivalent to a billionth of a metre]. These nanoparticles can occur naturally in nature through fire or dust storms or can be prepared in the laboratory, using two basic methods known as top-down and bottom-up approaches. The former refers to size reduction of bulk materials while the latter involves synthesis of materials from an atomic level. Nanoparticles that are produced for the benefit of plant growth are termed nanofertilizers. Fungicides and pesticides can also be produced with nanoparticles.
It has been shown that nanofertilizers can improve crop productivity by enhancing the rate of seed germination, seedling growth, photosynthetic activity and nitrogen metabolism, as well as carbohydrate and protein synthesis. In many instances, soils are deficient in major micronutrients, resulting in the mineral composition of crops or edible leafy produce being inadequate to meet human nutritional requirements. Nanoparticles have the potential to address such agricultural challenges. However, with nanotechnology being a relatively new technology, the ethical and safety issues surrounding the use of nanoparticles in plant production still need to be carefully evaluated before adopting the application of nanofertilizers in agroecosystems.
Nanotechnology will help farmers address the following questions through the use of nanofertilizers.
How can we simultaneously deliver increased crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture?
Nanofertilizers increase nutrient efficiency in plants through mechanisms such as targeted delivery, slow or controlled release, thereby reducing the amount of fertilizers used.
Will world agricultural systems be able to cope with global climate change?
The efficiency of nanoparticles can assist in coping with climate change as nanofertilizers can withstand drastic negative climatic conditions.
The Microbiology and Environmental Biotechnology Research Group at the Agricultural Research Council – Soil, Climate and Water is investigating alternative ways of improving agricultural crop production through precision farming. In a research project funded by L’Oreal for Women in Science, the efficiency of different types of nanofertilizers for crop production is being evaluated and how these nanofertilizers in turn affect the quality of the crop as well as soil properties. The study forms part of an increasing focus on overcoming socio-economic challenges through scientific innovation. This will be achieved by ensuring food security through the application of nanofertilizers for improved crop growth.
For more information:
Dr Busiswa Ndaba
ARC-Soil, Climate and Water
Tel: 012 310 2519
Dr Ashira Roopnarain
ARC-Soil, Climate and Water
Tel: 012 310 2650