Nanotechnology, using particles of dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers, has been around for quite a while. It has been successfully implemented across various verticals including medicine, information technology, energy, consumer goods, among others. Over the past decade, there has been an increased interest in applications of nanotechnology for improving plant protection and enhancing crops’ nutritive value. Agrochemical companies are continuously exploring possibilities offered by nanotechnology in the field of agriculture. Though considered to be a revolutionary technology, research will continue to evaluate potential benefits of this ‘technology in progress’.
The growth of the overall nanotechnology market is certain in the future – it was already projected to be over US$ 3 trillion in 2015. Although the understanding of the critical role nanotechnology plays in modern agriculture is increasing, the development of these products for agricultural purposes has received relatively little attention. Developing nanocapsules for delivering pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to agricultural fields in a more efficient manner should allow to reduce the application of plant protection products, minimize nutrient loss, and increase crop yields. Agrochemical companies are conducting rigorous R&D to develop nano-based chemicals and have been successful in developing a varied range of products. For instance, Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness company, developed a nano-encapsulated broad spectrum synthetic insecticide named Karate Zeon, containing lambda-cyhalothrin that is released on contact with leaves, for the control of insect pests in a range of crops. The product is currently available for use in multiple countries including USA, Germany, Brazil, France, India, Mexico, Indonesia, UK, Canada, and Italy. Another agrochemical company, US-based Nano Green Sciences, developed an organic nanoparticle-based plant tonic Nano Green that enhances the nutrient uptake of the plant thus improving plant growth. The company planned to apply for approval of the product’s use as a pesticide in various countries back in 2008, but the status of this application is currently unclear.
Research is conducted to understand the applicability of nanotechnology in agriculture. Solutions are being devised to improve crop quality by optimizing nutrient management, reduce the amount of chemical sprayed by smart delivery of active ingredients, and to minimize nutritional loss of the soil. Research institutes and agro companies are still exploring the potential that nanotechnology can offer in the agricultural field. Advanced products such as plant protectors, soil enhancers, and products that increase the nutrients absorption capacity of plants are being developed. For instance, Rice Research and Development Institute of Sri Lanka, in 2016, tested a range of nanoparticles referred to as Urea-hydroxyapatite nanohybrid, carrying urea to increase the crop yield of rice. The test results showed 10% increase in crop yield and reduced the consumption of fertilizer by 50%.
Despite potential benefits that nanotechnology can offer, these products are available in the market only on a small scale mainly due to the high costs involved in their development. The agricultural nanotechnology also does not promise sufficient ROI. Opportunities to test and understand the long term benefits of these nano products on crops in live environment are limited. Ensuring a good availability of dedicated agricultural farms solely for the purpose of R&D to study their behavior seems nearly impossible and producing these nano products involves high cost of development which indicates slow turnaround in terms of profits. Agrochemical companies, apart from developing technologically advanced products, are also aiming to cut the development costs. For instance, in 2005 NaturalNano, a US-based company, started developing clay nanotubes called halloysite as potential low cost alternative nanocapsules used as a carrier of pesticides. More technological initiatives similar to this are required to make nanotechnology in agriculture a success.
Thanks to the ambiguity of which available products can be considered under the ‘nano’ category and the uncertainty about the products profitability, the use of nanochemicals on a large scale seems limited in current times. It seems that in the near future agriculturists are likely to continue using the conventional means to treat crops in order to keep insects and pests at bay. There is no doubt that nanotechnology has huge potential to impact the agricultural sector in a positive way and may emerge as a winner in distant future, however, to be used at a commercial scale, continuous research to evaluate the technology’s potential future is crucial.