The ever increasing human population and subsequent worldwide demand for food has urged for a better protection of agricultural crops from the infestation by different groups of insects. This initiated the intervention of modern techniques for the development of novel strategies of plant protection. Over the past decade, there has been a considerable amount of active research on the possible application of nanotechnology in the current agricultural practices including development of novel plant-protection products. Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the agricultural and food industry with novel tools for the molecular management of diseases, rapid disease detection, enhancing the ability of plants to absorb nutrients, among others. On the other hand, nano biotechnology can improve our understanding of the biology of various crops and thus can potentially enhance yields or nutritional values, as well as developing improved systems for monitoring environmental conditions and enhancing the ability of plants to absorb nutrients or pesticides.
Image: Nanobotanical formulations for integrated pest management (Source : Mr.Ravish Bhat, BRICS LLP)
Changes in agricultural technology have been a major factor shaping modern agriculture. Among the latest line of technological innovations, nanotechnology occupies a prominent position in transforming agriculture and food production. The development of nano-devices and nanomaterials could open up novel applications in plant biotechnology and agriculture. Currently, the main thrust of research in nanotechnology focuses on applications in the field of electronics, energy, medicine and life sciences, as agriculture is not considered as potent industry. While nano-chemical pesticides are already in use, other applications are still in their early stages, and it may take many years before they are commercialized or to reach the common man. These applications are largely intended to address some of the limitations and challenges facing large scale chemical and capital intensive farming systems. This includes the fine tuning and more precise micromanagement of soils; the more efficient and targeted use of inputs, new toxin formulations for pest control, new crop and animal traits, and the diversification and differentiation of farming practices and products within the context of large scale and highly uniform systems of production. Nano-technology will leave no field untouched by its ground breaking scientific innovations. The agricultural industry is no exception. So far, the use of nanotechnology in agriculture has been mostly theoretical, but it has begun and will continue to have a significant impact in the main areas of food industry, development of new functional materials, product development and design of methods and instrumentation for food safety and bio-security. The effects on society as a whole will be dramatic.
Various fields of agriculture in which nanotechnology application may play vital role in near future:
- Nanotechnology in development of agricultural production.
- Nanosensors (Nanobiosensors) for detecting pests, soil condition and plant growth harmones
- Nano delivery systems for nutrients and harmones
- Nanobotanical pesticides for integrated pest management
- Nanotechnology in irrigation water filteration.
- Nanocapsules for proper delivery of pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals.
- Nano encapsulated zeolites for water retention.
- Nanocoatings and nanofeed additives
- Nanotechnology in organic farming.
Role of Nanoparticles in Integrated pest management
Some of the nanoparticles that have entered into the arena of controlling plant diseases are nano forms of carbon, silver, silica and alumino silicates. At such a situation, nanotechnology has astonished scientific community because at nano level, material shows different properties. The use of nano size silver particles as antimicrobial agents has become more common as technology advances, making their production more economical. Since silver displays different modes of inhibitory action to microorganisms, it may be used for controlling various plant pathogens in a relatively safer way compared to commercially used fungicides. Nano silver is known to affect many biochemical processes in the microorganisms including the changes in routine functions and plasma membrane.
Figure: Transmission Electron Microscopy image of Biofunctionalized Silver nanoparticles, (Source: Ravishankar Bhat et al., (2013), Journal of Cluster Science, 24, 107-114)
Nano silver is the most studied and utilized nano particle for bio-system. It has long been known to have strong inhibitory and bactericidal effects as well as a broad spectrum of antimicrobial properties. Silver nanoparticles, which have high surface area and high fraction of surface atoms, have high antimicrobial effect compared to the bulk. Fungicidal properties of nano size silver colloidal solution are used as an agent for antifungal treatment of various plant pathogens. Silver Nanoparticles are also effective against insects and pests. Nanoparticles can be used in the preparation of new formulations like pesticides, insecticides and insect repellants.
Nanotechnology and societal stigma
The effects of exposure to engineered nanoparticles may be different from the effects caused by naturally occurring nanoparticles. Engineered nanoparticles may be better to evade the body’s defences because of their size or protective coatings. Moreover, the health and environmental risks raised due to the exposure to engineered nanoparticles need further study. Up-coming nanotechnologies in the agricultural field seem quite interesting and promising. However, the probable risks in using nanoparticles in agriculture are no diverse than those in any other business. Through the rapid distribution of nanoparticles to food products, whether it is in the food itself or part of the packaging, nanoparticles will virtually come in direct or indirect contact with everyone. The probability could be that “the merger of nanotech and biotech may cast unknown consequences on soil, health, biodiversity and the environment.
Since there is no standardization for the use and testing of nanotechnology, products incorporating the nanomaterials are being produced without check. The ability for these materials to infiltrate the human body is well known, but there is really no information on the effects that they may have in a long run. While there is no evidence of harm to people or the environment at this stage, nanotechnology is a new and evolving area of study that could cause a great deal of harm due to its still ambiguous chemical properties. With the current application and advancements soon to come, nanotechnology will have a great impact on the direction that agriculture will take. Scientists are blazing a trail for a new technology and looking at every possible avenue to improve upon current methods in every possible field. In the field of agriculture, there are still many possibilities to explore and a great deal of potential with up-coming products and techniques. Therefore, extensive studies are required to understand the mechanism for nanoparticles materials toxicity and their impacts on natural environment.
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Ravishankar Bhat, PhD
Process Head, Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Bricsbio.