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Nanotechnology for agriculture- a brief overview

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.

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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:

  1. Nanotechnology in development of agricultural production.
  2. Nanosensors (Nanobiosensors) for detecting pests, soil condition and plant growth harmones
  3. Nano delivery systems for nutrients and harmones
  4. Nanobotanical pesticides for integrated pest management
  5. Nanotechnology in irrigation water filteration.
  6. Nanocapsules for proper delivery of pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals.
  7. Nano encapsulated zeolites for water retention.
  8. Nanocoatings and nanofeed additives
  9. Nanoherbicide
  10. 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.

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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.

References

  1. De Jonghe, K.; Dobbelaere, I. D.; Sarrazyn, R. and Hofte, M. Plant Pathology 2005, 54

(2), 219-226.

  1. Perlatti, B.; Bergo, P. L. S.; Fatima, M.; Fernandes, J. B. and Forim, M. R. Insecticides-

Development of Safer and More Effective Technologies 2013, Ed. Stanislav Trdan, ISBN,

Chapter 20, 523-550.

  1. Nidhi, K.; Indrajeet, S.; Khushboo, M.; Gauri, K. and Sen, D. J. Int. J. Drug Dev. & Res.

2011, 3(2), 26-33.

  1. Bhat, R., Ganchari, S., Deshpande, R., Ravindra, G.,  Venkataraman, A., J. Clust. Sci., 2013, 24, 24, 107-  114.

About Author

Ravishankar Bhat, PhD

Ravishankar 2
Process Head, Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Bricsbio.

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Urban Farming, a Critical Need for Growing Cities

It seems that “WHEN THE LAST PLANT DIES, WHEN THE LAST RIVER IS POISONED, WE REALISE THAT WE CANNOT EAT MONEY”. Industrialization, especially boom in information technology and biotechnologies, has led to people concentrating around cities.  It is time for all of us including the law makers, nutritionists, civil engineers, architects, industrialists, businessmen, farming scientists, to realize that just industrialization is not the progress. Something beyond that is required to lead a healthy and peaceful life in cities. Concerted efforts are to be planned and implemented in and around cities to grow healthy food, to nurture our nature and environment and so to keep the place livable for our children and future generations.

Urban farming or city farming is gaining momentum all round the globe. Though the concept is not new, there is enhanced emphasis in recent years to ‘grow your own food’. A couple of decades back most of the urban houses had kitchen gardens at the back of their houses. Due to increase in population and migration of people to urban areas, fertile agricultural land has been converted into houses and other infrastructures, reducing the land for crop cultivation. By 2030, people living in cities will reach nearly 60 per cent. It is estimated that, 26 cities in the World will have more than 10 million populations by 2015. With the pressure building on land and its cost in the urban areas, there is hardly any space to have a garden.

It is well documented that consumption of food grown using synthetic chemicals continuously can lead to severe health hazards. The book ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson gives details about the ill effects of chemical agriculture as early as 1960′s. The difficulties of parents of the handicapped children in group of villages around Padre in Kasargod, Kerala due to continuous exposure to endosulfan through contaminated water bodies, food and environment is just in front of our eyes.  Today, consumers are more aware and realizing the health hazards due to the food they consume, due to higher levels of toxic pesticide residues, which affect not only health but also the subsoil water and environment.

The high demand and pull for perishable fruits and vegetables in cities has led to malpractices, toxic agriculture and processing interventions, unexpectedly high costs and many related problems. City dwellers who are completely dependent on produce from villages and peri-urban areas are facing the heat and have to look for alternatives.  The only way and the best way to counter the health hazards of these chemical poisons in food are to follow safe practices of crop production. This is practical and possible when we start ‘growing our own food’.

On one side, we look at safe and functional food, on the other side there is hardly any cultivable land in urban and peri-urban areas, mostly compromised for developmental activities.  It’s not just in India, but all over the world. The best bet alternative is to plan, design and devise ways to grow vegetables, fruits and other food crops domestically through terrace gardening. The small country Cuba has become a model and example to emulate as the cities there produce more daily need vegetables and fruits, reducing the food miles and saving the energy significantly.

The urban farming undoubtedly has the potential. The importance of urban farming in general and terrace gardening in particular has been recognized and support systems are being planned to encourage and to explore the practices further. Many organizations and individuals are joining hands in promoting the concept and practices of organic terrace gardening among city dwellers through training events, workshops, popular articles, online sharing, blogs, and so on.

The terrace gardens in particular and urban farming in general, has the basis/principle of ‘Grow what you Eat and Eat what you Grow’. While the commercial viability of crop

production is expected, the major targets seem to be fresh, safe and functional (organic) food (vegetables and fruits) required for a family or for local needs, to develop greenery and to reduce pollution in urban areas. It is also to have a space and place for physical exercise, to relax from pressures of urban living and to get the extraordinary pleasure of growing crops and having green natural ambience and surroundings to the dwelling place.
The pleasure of growing plants will be multifold when the crops are healthy. Plant health is the function of many growth factors and is the key for better yields. It is difficult to have the optimum situation even on the ground, as many factors are beyond our control. Providing a real near condition for plant growth will be a challenge and if succeeded, then crops perform well. Crops on terrace gardens are always raised on limited situations where light, water and nutrients may not be plenty for the crop growth unlike ideal field situations. Among many factors that contribute to the performance of crops on terraces, water, nutrients and pests have significant influence on crop growth and yields. Correct understanding and management of these factors is very important.
Both adoption and adaption of good organic practices are required to have a successful terrace garden. Plenty literature and knowledge are available online today and practiced. The process has to happen in the movement phase to make many urbanites to start practicing terrace gardening or urban farming. Training events, workshops, demonstrations and exhibitions on urban farming and terrace gardening are the need of the hour to promote the cause effectively. Few examples of successful terrace gardening experiences or case studies in Bengaluru are here.

1. Crop diversity on the terrace garden of Smt. Anasuya Sharma 

Bengaluru is Mrs. Anasuya Sharma’s home since 1981. Like many of us, growing plants was her fascination. From 1957, she is involved in growing different crops. The basic concept she visualized, realized and practiced on her terrace garden is growing different types of plants to meet diverse needs of in the household. Her terrace garden has vegetables, flowers, fruits, herbs, spices, medicinal and aromatic plants along with ornamentals. Growing plants in Thermocol boxes, Old car tire, Gunny bags, used plastic covers, baskets etc using homemade compost and herbal sprays.

Today she is an active member of many organizations to promote organic farming. Apart from sharing her experiences with the visitors often, she is writing articles in daily, Weekly and monthly magazines to promote the cause of organic terrace gardening.

2. Mini-Lalbagh of Smt.Soubagya Sadashiva 

Mrs. Soubhagya Sadashiva is the resident of lively Jayanagar, Bengaluru. She was awestruck to terrace gardening since she attended a workshop in 2005.
The first thing which came to her mind when she began terrace gardening activities was to create a mini Lalbagh on her terrace.  She remembers the support given b y her husband, other family members and relatives in her efforts.
There were only few croton and tomato plants to begin with, and then a compost unit was organized. Monkeys started distuing the plants, so the terrace got barricade of iron grills. Now there are lawns at the front, different vegetable, medicinal, fruit, and ornamental plants on the terrace.  Today it is a diverse system, a true mini
Lalbagh on the terrace. There are many birds with their chirping sounds all round the garden, and of course specially taken care.

Mrs. Soubhagya Sadashiva has the commitment to the purpose. The best part is the time given to all the visitors, to share the experiences and encourage them to practice terrace gardening. She has become a model for many who want to practice terrace gardening in Bengaluru today.

3. Sustainability focus on the terrace garden of Mr. S.Laxminarayan

For software engineer Mr. S. Laxminarayan, working for a multinational IT company may not be really sustainable.  After visiting many places in the World, he believes that the rural module is the best where the food mileage is the minimum. He wants to go back to nature to relish his needs.  Though he is not against flowers and floriculture, he thinks it is better to have only vegetables, fruits, and medicinal plants are the best choices where it is possible to ‘grow what you eat and eat what you grow’.

He came in to the movement of urban farming and terrace gardening two years back and quickly adopted to the practices of terrace gardening.  He thought of designing his terrace in his own way. He started sourcing for materials in the junk yards and designed raised beds and boxes with iron bars and used wood pieces.  The raised beds that he designed with different sizes became a hit quickly among many terrace gardeners in the city.

He wanted to develop his terrace of about 400 square foot in to a model garden with more sustainable systems, growing different types of vegetables. His terrace has about 50 species of plants which have various uses. He could able to meet around 40 per cent of his vegetable requirements from his terrace in the first year itself and very much convinced.  Today he is the active member of Garden City Farmers Trust, taking active role in sharing and spreading the experiences through the Organic Terrace Gardening Group on Face Book and other networks. He is actively involved in promoting the concept through School children and considering developing a useful syllabus for practical teaching of terrace gardening.  Many interested u
rban farmers in Bengaluru and outside visit his terrace garden today to discuss with him and to have the first hand idea about setting their own terrace gardens. He enjoys doing that sharing work continuously.

4.  Oota from your Thota for organizing terrace gardening materials

When it comes to real practice of Terrace gardening or urban farming, all those who are interested in growing vegetables following safe crop production practices, look for different types materials and inputs in one place. Sourcing and organizing necessary inputs and materials from different places in Bengaluru or from outside is a major disadvantage and delaying adoption of terrace gardening. Garden City Farmers started organizing the event ‘Oota from your Thota’ from 2011 at different parts of Bengaluru with a purpose to promote Organic Urban Farming/Organic Terrace Gardening among urban dwellers, making available all gardening related materials in one place along with knowhow.  The event is also to expose the urbanites to different enterprises related to organic urban farming. The event will have demonstrations/discussions and exhibitions on organic urban farming, inputs and products/foods. The film  shows on urban farming and terrace gardening during the event have incited very good response.

Going forward, Terrace garden/ing is a simple but definite step towards increasing our green cover and is a more sustainable urban farming option for our food needs, irrespective of space restrictio
n. This is an option achievable for many urban dwellers to cultivate the food crops of their choice and for their own use. This felt need can be a real movement by sharing and spreading know-how amongst us. However, the learning has to happen experientially because of diverse needs and other growth situations.

Originally written by  Dr. B.N. Vishwanathand Dr. Rajendra Hegde

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Plant Care in Organic Terrace Gardening

The terrace gardens in particular and urban farming in general, has the basis/principle of ‘Grow what you Eat and Eat what you Grow’. While urban farming has many options, ways and adoptions, this chapter exclusively deals in brief on the methods and management practices of water, nutrients and pests for vegetable terrace gardens.    While the commercial viability of crop production is expected, the major targets seem to be fresh, safe and functional (organic) food (vegetables and fruits) required for a family or for local needs, to develop greenery and to reduce pollution in urban areas. It is also to have a space and place for physical exercise, to relax from pressures of urban living and to get the extraordinary pleasure of growing crops and having green natural ambience and surroundings to the dwelling place.

The pleasure of growing plants will be multifold when the crops are healthy.   Plant health is the function of many growth factors and is the key for better yields.  It is difficult to have the optimum situation even on the ground, as many factors are beyond our control. As terrace gardens are artificial situations, providing a real near condition for plant growth will be a challenge and if succeeded, then crops perform well. Crops on terrace gardens are always raised on limited situations where light, water and nutrients may not be plenty for the crop growth unlike ideal field situations.  Among many factors that contribute to the performance of crops on terraces, water, nutrients and pests have significant influence on crop growth and yields. Correct understanding and management of these factors are very important.

Water

Watering is one of the most important aspects of effective organic gardening. Plants contain lots of (95%) water and most of the processes of the plant involve water. Along with light and carbon dioxide, water helps accelerate the necessary processes needed in effective care of plants.

Watering requirement of crop plants on terraces varies depending upon season/climate, type of container, plant growth medium, and so on. In general, considering all different types of vegetable plants and a growth medium which has considerable proportion of organic compost, the watering has to be adjusted. Vegetable plants are mostly shallow rooted which remain near the surface and so thorough soaking is required. It is important to maintain a constant level of moisture within the soil. If soil moisture levels fluctuate greatly from dry to very wet, that cause problems and affect the plant growth.

In a normal organic vegetable terrace garden,

  1. In summer, pots are to be watered twice a day with a mug (approx. ½ liter) of water for a pot of 12 inches.
  2. During winter, watering once a day, with a mug of water should be sufficient
  3. In rainy season, water only if required, if hot weather prevails for 2 days and the soil surface is dried.

Watering tips

  1. Water well and less frequently – helps in better root aeration and growth
  2. Water the plants in the morning or evening – Watering during a hot period can cause sunburn on foliage and shock the plant roots. Also evaporation is low during these periods.
  3. Give priority to plants that need water most – Young seedlings/transplants with shallow roots should be watered on priority.
  4. Avoid over watering – Nutrients are washed away. It can cause root rots and wilts.
  5. Add more organic compost – retains moisture for more time
  6. Water stress during flowering and fruiting prevents the flowers from developing properly and the fruit doesn’t develop at all
  7. Advanced mechanized methods of watering like drip/sprinkler can be adopted, but physical exercise has to be compromised

Plant Nutrition

Along with water and carbon dioxide, plants need different nutrients, to perform better. Though the quantity of nutrients required is very small, you can see symptoms very quickly if they are missing.  The leaves change color; the plant makes hardly any growth and remains stunted, and so on.  Addition of organic matter/compost to the planting medium helps plants to obtain different types of nutrients required for plant growth. Blend of organic matters (plant wastes, animal dung, oil cakes, vermicompost, bio-fertilizers) make these nutrients in totality and therefore always recommended.

Nutrients from air & water

Nutrients from soil

Primary nutrients

Secondary nutrients

Micronutrients

Carbon (C)Hydrogen (H)

Oxygen (O)

Nitrogen (N)Phosphorus (P)

Potassium (K)

Calcium (Ca)Magnesium (Mg)

Sulfur (S)

Boron (B)Chlorine (Cl)

Copper (Cu)

Iron (Fe)Manganese (Mn)

Molybdenum (Mo)

Zinc (Zn)

In fact, plants absorb all the nutrients in the ionic form and will not differentiate the nutrients based on their source (organic or inorganic). But the whole process is facilitated by the microbial complex that exists in the diverse soil system which is still not understood properly.  Addition of organic compost to the planting medium favors the buildup of many useful microorganisms at the plant base which make the nutrients available to plants, improves moisture retention ability, improves soil aeration and enhances root growth and many more advantages.

Though it is possible to grow plants using only compost (soil less cultures), it is suggested to add a portion of soil for all the planting media. Still there is no replacement of soil, with respect to the diversity it adds to the plant growth medium.

In general, plant growth medium for terrace gardening are as below.

  1. Shrub/Bush vegetables – Tomato, brinjal, bush beans, chilli, etc- 1 part of soil: 4 parts of organic compost
  2. Vine vegetables – Gourds, cucumber, melons, Indian spinach etc – 1part of soil : 5 parts of organic compost
  3. Leafy vegetables – Coriander, methi, amaranthus, etc – 1part of soil : 5 parts of organic compost
  4. Root vegetables – Carrot, Raddish, beetroot, etc – 1 part of soil : 5 parts of organic compost
  5. Fruit crops – Papaya, Guava, Sapota, Pomegranate – 1 part of soil : 3 parts of organic compost

Nutrition tips

  1. Better to use well matured blend of compost
  2. Addition of more compost will not harm the plant, but add to the cost
  3. Provide a handful of compost or vermicompost at flowering and fruiting stage
  4. Liquid organic fertilizers like Panchagavya/Phytonic can be sprayed or drenched if leaves/plants turn yellow
  5. Vermi-wash spray encourage growth and reduce flower drop

Insect pests and diseases

It is well known that pest incidence on plants follow the famous host-pest-environment triangle. The pests can take upper hand only if the plant is weak (not healthy) and the environment are congenial for the pests to grow and multiply. Therefore, it is much essential to keep the plants healthy, by growing them on suitable growth medium and also choosing suitable vegetable types for the varying seasons and situations. Though it is difficult to keep the equilibrium with respect to all three interacting elements, it can give sure results if practiced.

In general, the insect pests and disease incidence will be lower in organic agriculture, that too on terraces and in kitchen gardens, as the crop plants mostly here are indigenous, well adapted varieties; such varieties will have some type of tolerance against varied types of pests via different mechanisms and probably for many reasons which are yet to be explained. However, certain pests are bound to occur. Among insect pests, sucking pests like mealy bugs, aphids, mites are major. Fungal, bacterial and viral diseases occur on plants and most prevalent are powdery mildew, blights, leaf spots, leaf curl and mosaics.

Commonly occurring pests in organic terrace gardens

Insect pests

Plant diseases

Non-insect pests

 Mealy bugs

 Serpentine Leaf miners

 Powdery mildew

 Leaf spots

 Snails & slugs

 Aphids

 Hairy caterpillars

 Leaf blight

 Wilt

 Squirrels

 Scales

 Beetles

 Leaf curl

 Fruit rot

 Rats and mice

 Whiteflies

 Weevils

 Mosaics

 Neck blight

 Pigeons

 Thrips

 Mites

Terrace gardens are very diverse because of varied structural, growth and weather conditions. It is therefore not possible to have a set of recommendations for the management of these pests. There can be a basket of options, from which the practitioner has to select out suitable options and formulate for their pest problems.

Terrace gardens are very diverse because of varied structural, growth and weather conditions. It is therefore not possible to have a set of recommendations for the management of these pests. There can be a basket of options, from which the practitioner has to select out suitable options and formulate for their pest problems.

Basket of options for pest management in terrace gardens

Cultural Methods

Mechanical methods

Botanical methods

Biological method

Keep the plant sturdy and healthy

Regular scouting

Marigold, chrysanthemum, niger, sesamum as trap crops

Spraying Panchkavya gives tolerance against pests

Good drainage

Crop rotation and selection to suit to seasons

Avoid over crowding

Soil solarisation

Handpicking and destruction  of egg masses and larvae

Removal of viral and sick plants and destruction

Neem seed kernel extract and pongemia extracts (many pests)

Chilli Garlic extract (Aphids)

Salt water (snail and slugs)

Turmeric powder (ants)

Neem products such as NeemShakti,, NeemThump (all types of pests)

Sweetflag extract (plant diseases)

Organic fungicides like MycoDim

Scouting and conserve crop defenders such as spiders, preying mantis, ladybirds, lacewings, wasps, etc

Pest Management tips

  1. Healthy plants tolerate the pest pressure well
  2. Prevention is better than cure
  3. Predatory birds can be attracted by planning a water source and nesting/sitting places

About Author

Dr. Rajendra Hegde

Hegde sir 1

Director, Research and Developement at Bricsbio.

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