How Nanobiotechnology Could Transform Agriculture At Every Level

10/04/2017 3:57 PM IST | Updated 11/04/2017 8:48 AM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

According to the United Nations, the population of the world is expected to reach 8 billion by 2025. India accounts for 17.84% of the total world population. By 2025, India's population is likely to exceed 1.5 billion, simultaneously raising the demand for food grains to over 300 million tonnes as against the current production (2015-2016) of 252 million tonnes. The current fertiliser consumption of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium has been registered at 23.59 million tonnes (2013-2014). However, the removal of nutrients from soil is far higher than the additions, thereby creating a net negative balance of about 10 million tonnes from soil every year and causing a serious threat to soil health. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers creates nutrient imbalance of soil, and results in reduced productivity and environmental problems. Therefore, it is important to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to meet soaring demands through the use of limited resources. Over 142 million hectares are under cultivation—but there are more than 55 million hectares of waste/fallow land that can be retrieved using innovative solutions.

The technology encompasses capabilities to improve the livelihoods of marginalised and low-income farmers.

Considering the advancements in science and technology, nanotechnology is being visualised as a rapidly evolving field that has the potential to revolutionise agriculture and food systems. Nanotechnology, when applied as a tool, in tandem with other measures, can seek to address some of the world's most critical sustainable development problems in the areas of water, energy, health, environment, agriculture, and biodiversity and ecosystem management (United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002). A UN Survey on potential applications of nanobiotechnology in developing countries identified agricultural productivity enhancement as the second-most critical area of application for attaining the millennium development goals. Nanobiotechnology has the potential to plug in the gaps mentioned above and revolutionise the agriculture and food industry with new tools for treatment and reduced occurrence of plant diseases, rapid disease diagnosis, enhancing productivity and availability of nutrients to plants. Precision farming methodologies will also be greatly influenced by nanotechnology, and can help reduce agricultural waste and environmental pollution.

Nanomaterials exhibit different electrical, magnetic, optical, mechanical, and other physical properties in comparison to their bulk material counterparts, and are thereby capable of potentially revolutionary applications. Key applications of nanobiotechnology lie in increasing productivity, improving product quality, reducing post-harvest losses, and natural resource management. Thus, advancement in the field of nanotechnology presents opportunities which, on being translated, have the capability to improve the livelihoods of marginalised and low-income farmers. Nanobiotechnology is revolutionary not only in the scientific and technological sense but also plays a significant role in the social and economic scenario.

In India, to achieve the national goal of sustainable agricultural growth of over 4%, it is important that nanobiotechnology innovations are extended to the entire agricultural value chain.

Nanobiotechnology applications in the agricultural sector are still in their infancy, and focused mainly being on providing solutions to agricultural and environmental challenges such as sustainability, improved plant varieties, increased productivity, and natural resource management. Nanotechnology-derived devices are being explored in the field of plant breeding and genetic transformation. Further, bio-nanocomposites with enhanced physical and mechanical properties are being developed for agricultural purposes.

However, the eventual success of nanobiotechnology in agriculture depends on realisation and acceptance by stakeholders and end users. In the Indian context, to achieve the national goal of sustainable agricultural growth of over 4%, it is important that the innovations using nanobiotechnology are extended to the entire agricultural value chain. This would require focusing on translation of technologies that not only increase the agricultural productivity (directly or indirectly), product quality, and resource use efficiencies, but also replenish the natural resources that help reduce farm costs, raise the worth of production, and improve associated incomes. There should also be a concerted effort to ensure that such solutions reach the end user or the farmer, along with an effective regulatory mechanism and governance involving all stakeholders.

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