The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as, “the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.” (2)
By manipulating material at the molecular level, researchers are developing new materials that are strong and lightweight, and creating tiny robots that can deliver drugs directly to cancer tumors, among many other applications.
The Chinese have found that crop yields can be increased by soaking seeds in water permeated with nano-863, which uses a ceramic matrix to hold materials with strong light absorbing properties and high-temperature sintering.
The treated water is also used for watering as fertilizer. The nanomaterial seems to increase the metabolism of a variety of food plants, thus increasing plant yields.
The Chinese have also added nano-863 to water and feed for livestock, resulting in a marked increase in weight and meat production. The use of nanomaterials such as Selenium has been used to enhance the health of livestock without using antibiotics. The use of antibiotics has come under increasing scrutiny due to the development of resistant diseases.
Other Uses for Nanotechnology
The Chinese are also using nanotechnology to dilute pesticides and at the same time increase their efficiency. The process not only decreases the cost of pesticides, but mitigates against the possible health effects of their use.
One of the vexing problems of modern agriculture concerns the detection of harmful substances such as pesticide residues and pathogens that can make food unhealthy. Current techniques involve great expense and a large infrastructure.
The Chinese are exploring the use of nanoprobes to detect animal and plant diseases and, in some cases, eliminate them. They are also using nanomaterials to degrade pesticide residue to render it harmless.
China, because of that country’s rapid industrialization, faces a variety of environmental challenges. Researchers are using nanomaterials to eliminate waste from livestock such as chicken and pigs. They are using other nanomaterials to mitigate greenhouse gasses, a process that might have applications beyond the agricultural sector.
Naturally the use of nanotechnology could pose certain environmental and human health risks, most of which are still unclear. Scientists are unclear as to what effects ingesting nanoparticles might have on both animals and human beings. These particles could prove toxic to living organisms and, due to their tiny size, might directly affect DNA in unpredictable ways.
Similarly, the introduction of potentially toxic nanoparticles to the environment may have unforeseen and adverse effects. The problem of preventing the proliferation of nanoparticles from escaping to the outside environment remains vexing.
The West and Nanotechnology
In the West, the use of nanotechnology in agriculture has tended to be used in altering the properties of food, making it healthier, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (3).
Canola oil that has been treated with nanoparticles that block the absorption of cholesterol is cited as one example. Nanotechnology has also been used to create a chocolate shake that is not only tastier but is more nutritious than the regular variety.
Agricultural nanotechnology is in its infancy. However, as the practice becomes more widespread, it may encounter societal resistance just as genetically-modified crops have.
Such resistance would not prove to be much of a problem in China since that country is ruled by a dictatorial government.
But in democratic societies such as the United States and the European Union, great care has to be taken to mitigate the risks and to educate the public. Otherwise, the main barrier to the use of nanotechnology in agriculture may not be technological, but political.