Nanotechnology helps farmers battle drought, pests but GMO rules could slow adoption

nanotechnology in agriculture

Agriculture is responsible for 75% of global deforestation, 70% of water consumption and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The expected population growth to around 10 billion people by 2050 will further exacerbate this problem if there is no fundamental change in irrigation, fertilization, pest control and efficiency in agriculture. A current study in “Nature Food” by Thilo Hofmann from the Center for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna now shows new solutions in the field of nanotechnology that could make agriculture more environmentally friendly.

“Nanotechnology in agriculture is a very socially sensitive area,” says Thilo Hofmann. In the study, the current international state of research in nanotechnology was evaluated, possible game changer technologies for agriculture were identified and the necessary steps identified. “It is essential that socio-political aspects are considered from the start and all stakeholders are involved: politics, industry, environmental protection associations, farmers and consumer representatives”.

The study is the result of a public workshop with the above-mentioned stakeholders and an expert group led by Hofmann, which was organized at the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design at McGill University in Montreal (Canada).

How nanotechnology could be used in crop production

There are several possibilities in which areas nanotechnology can already be used: Nanosensors, which are inserted as chips in plants, can send signals about drought or stress caused by pest infestation, which is followed by a targeted response. This would make fertilizers or irrigation more efficient. Pesticides in nanocapsules can in turn increase their accuracy: Because up to two thirds of the pesticides used do not reach the plants. Encapsulated pesticides increase the likelihood that they will reach the plant exactly when they are needed and therefore have less impact on the environment. Another application is nano-shells around seeds, so-called nano-coatings. These could help achieve better germination and less seed is needed.

nanotubes x
Credit: UC Berkeley graphic by Ella Marushchenko

Nano-capsules and nano-casings for nutrients and pesticides are technologies that are most advanced and are already being tested in the field. “Which type of nanotechnology can ultimately be used when and where must be discussed in advance in a broad manner – so that we have sensible solutions for the environment and people in good time,” says Hofmann. Agriculture and genetic engineering

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“The use of nanotechnology in plant gene technology is still at the laboratory stage, but research is very intensive here, particularly in the USA,” says Hofmann. What is viewed very critically in Europe – especially among consumers – is regulated completely differently in the United States. With the help of nano carriers, i.e. small capsules, genetic material can be introduced into the plant. Together with the CRISPR technology, the genome of the plant can be changed in a targeted manner so that desired properties are created, but no foreign genetic material is contained in this plant.

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In the USA, for example, this means that a product produced in this way no longer has to be marketed as genetically modified and labeled with “GMO”, while in Europe it would still be a genetically modified food. Even if the greatest potential for increasing efficiency in plant production is seen here, regulation and acceptance in America, China or Europe is completely different. “These conflicts will come to us in the coming years and should be recognized and discussed early,” said Hofmann.

Food and agriculture are among the most regulated areas worldwide – however, regulations and laws are not globally uniform. Solutions that may make sense in Asia or America are not necessarily useful in Europe because regional conditions vary widely. What may be useful for a region, a type of farm or a farmer in Austria need not apply to a farmer in another country. There are currently three main hurdles for the use of nanotechnology in agriculture: in addition to the application and manufacture of nanotechnological products on a field scale, regulation and safety aspects as well as consumer acceptance are important questions that need to be considered from the start. ”

[Editor’s note: This article was published in German and has been translated and edited for clarity.]

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