Scientists eye nanotechnologies to boost crop yields

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SPECIAL REPORT / Nanotechnologies that deliver fertilisers to plants offer promising ways of improving farm productivity while reducing the risk of water contamination. But the scientists behind a new Swiss-funded study caution that while the technology is still evolving, potential risks must be considered.

The European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme proposes heavy investment in developing materials and machines that are built from an atomic or molecular scale, with the European Commission proposing some €6 billion in financing for nano and other advanced technologies.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference held earlier this year in Rome identified nanotechnology as potentially having “significant benefits” for food security in a world facing a population rise from 7 billion now to 9 billion in 2050.

Clemens Breisinger, a German agricultural economist and senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), says the growth in consumption in the emerging world’s middle class also creates pressure for more production.

“As incomes grow, people tend to eat richer food, more meat,” Breisinger said.

“The only way to meet the demand is to significantly increase global food production,” Breisinger told EurActiv in a telephone interview. “The big question now is can this be done through productivity gains, or do we need more land.”

The Washington-based IFPRI has called for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, administered by the World Bank, to support more research on ways nanotechnology can improve farm production and water safety, especially for the world’s most impoverished people.

Urging caution

But the scientists behind a new Swiss-funded study caution that while the technology is still evolving, potential risks must be considered.

Researchers at Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station (ART) in Zurich and the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture in Berne say that direct application of plant protection products and fertilisers containing nanosubstances may pose potential hazards to microorganisms that flourish beneath the Earth’s surface.

The scientists contend there is only limited research into the effects of man-made nanomaterials on soil health, and point out that “the potential improvement of plant protection products and fertilisers through nanomaterials is offset by their significantly higher flux into soils if nanomaterials are used.”

Fragile microorganisms like bacteria and fungi are natural suppliers of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to crops, and are paramount for soil fertility and plant health.

“We cannot afford to jeopardise these essential ecosystem services” explained Thomas D. Bucheli of the Agroscope ART, and an author of the report funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. “These symbiontic communities are key for a sustainable agriculture and deserve our special attention.”

“With nanotechnology-related markets growing at an enormous speed, there is an urgent need to regulate products with nano content,” the researchers argue in their study published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

“This need for regulation is, however, in general but also specifically for agriculture adversely accompanied by a lack of knowledge on the current state.”

The study points out that while Swiss companies are required to declare any nanomaterials contained in new pesticide products, international guidelines for nano risk assessment are still at the development stage.

EFSA guidelines

Last year, the European Food Safety Authority published guidelines for the risk assessment of engineered nanomaterial in food and animal feed. Though it covers pesticides and food additives, the document does not deal with fertilisers.

Still, Bucheli said regulators have learned from past consequences of embracing technology without weighing the potential risks.

For instance, the pesticide DDT became a weapon of choice against malaria and typhus starting in the 1940s. Yet DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was later linked to cancer and birth defects in humans, and to disappearing wildlife, leading to restrictions on its use.

“On a very general level, regulators in the EU and in Switzerland and worldwide are doing a pretty good job right now given that this [nanotechnology] is really an evolving field of development,” Bucheli told EurActiv. “I think we are pretty much on time with our activities, both as researchers and regulators.”

Small is big

Both the advanced and emerging countries see enormous potential in nano developments.

German chemical company BASF and Syngenta have developed applications at the nano-level for crop protection. The United States is using nanosensors linked to global position systems to monitor soil conditions.

Researchers in China used nanomaterials to detect contamination in dairy products in 2008, when the melamine contamination of milk caused thousands of people be become sick.

The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany is working on using nanotechnologies to improve water safety, purification and wastewater treatment, leading to reduced energy and chemical consumption.

Last year, European researchers led by Britain’s Cranfield University developed a sophisticated way of conducting field tests that can detect pathogens in water using strands of DNA to trigger warnings.

Such developments could have major health implications for global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million people, most of them in developing countries, die every year from diseases related to contaminated water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Positions: 

In a report on using agricultural and food technologies to help the poor, the International Food Policy Research Institute has called for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

“Potential nanotechnology applications currently in the R&D pipeline have the potential to make agriculture more efficient, increase yields and product quality, and thereby increase nutritional benefits. Devel­oped countries are using or testing nanosensors and nanoagricultural chemicals, nanoparticles for soil cleaning and nanopore filters, nanoc­eramic devices, and nanoparticles. An increasing number of applica­tions are expected for food and agriculture uses, including nanosensors, potentially capable of detecting chemical contaminants, viruses, and bacteria; nano–delivery systems, which could precisely deliver drugs or micronutrients at the right time and to the right part of the body; as well as nanocoatings and films, nanoparticles, and quantum dots.”

Thomas D. Bucheli of the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station in Zurich sees promise in nanotech and efforts to ensure they are used safely in agricultural practices.

“We are pretty close - researchers, the developers and the regulators – to in a timely manner to really observe what’s going on. And I think that’s a big step forward … and I see that regulators and scientists and some of the producers of nanomaterials are even interacting with each other and exchanging their knowledge. In that respect, I am basically confident that this will work out well.”

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