Knowledge for Development

Nanotechnology in Agricultural Development in the ACP Region

Author: K. Anane-Fenin

Date: 29/04/2008


Science has advanced to the point that cutting edge research involves working with individual atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology holds the promise to exceed the advances achieved in recent decades in information and computer technology and biotechnology. Its applications are expected to have dramatic impacts, such as building tremendously faster computers, constructing lighter aircrafts, finding cancerous tumors still invisible to the human eye, or generating vast amounts of energy from highly efficient solar cells, and possibly improving agriculture (Anane-Fenin, 2006).


The word nano comes from the Greek and Latin words, nanos or nanus which means Dwarf. Nano refers to the 10-9 power or one billionth. One nanometer (nm) therefore is one billionth of a meter. To get a sense of the scale: a human hair measures roughly between 80,000-100,000 nm wide and the smallest visible object is 10,000 nm. Nanometer objects are therefore too small to be seen with the naked eye. At this scale, the familiar classical physics guideposts of magnetism and electricity are no longer dominant; and interactions of individual atoms and molecules take over (Foster, 2005). The applicable laws of physics shift as Newtonian mechanics give way to quantum mechanics.

What is nanoscience and nanotechnology?

Nanoscience is an emerging science which comprises the world of atoms, molecules, macromolecules, quantum dots, and macromolecular assemblies. It is a growing field of research in chemistry, biology and physics but cannot really be classified as one or the other as many scientific disciplines are studying very small things in order to better understand the world. It is dominated by surface effects such as Van der Waals force attraction, hydrogen bonding, electric charge, ionic bonding, covalent bonding, hydrophobicity, hydrophilicity and quantum mechanical tunneling, to the virtual exclusion of macro effects such as turbulence and inertia. For example, the vastly increased ratio of surface area to volume opens new possibilities in surface-based science, such as catalysis.

Nanotechnology is any technology which exploits phenomena and structures that can only occur at nanometer scale. The United States’ (US) National Nanotechnology Initiative website defines it as follows: “The understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometer, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.” (1). Taniguchi (1974) defined ‘nanotechnology’ as follows: “Nanotechnology mainly consists of processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule.” In the 1980’s the basic idea of this definition was explored in much more depth by Drexler (1986, 1999). However, the first mention of some of the distinguishing concepts in nanotechnology was in “There‘s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” written by Feynman (1961). Feynman described a process for manipulating individual atoms and molecules using one set of precise tools to build and operate another proportionally smaller set, and so on down to the nth scale. In the course of this, he noted, scaling issues would arise from the changing magnitude of various physical phenomena: gravity would become less important, whereas surface tension and Van der Waals attraction would become more important. This basic idea appears feasible and exponential assembly enhances it with parallelism to produce a useful quantity of end products.

In the early 1980’s the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) was invented at IBM-Zurich in Switzerland. This was the first instrument that was able to “see” atoms. A few years later, the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) was invented, expanding the capabilities and types of materials that could be investigated. Consequently the Scanning Probe Microscope (SPM) was born, and since then, multiple similar techniques have evolved from these instruments to “see” different properties at the nanometer scale. Familiar materials can have completely different properties at nanoscale. It is now known that carbon molecules at nanoscale can form cylindrical tubes, called carbon nanotubes (CNT), which are much stronger than steel, and conduct electricity neither of which is possible with the carbon found in coal or diamonds. Since their discovery by Iijima (1991) carbon nanotubes have fascinated scientists because of their extraordinary properties. CNT may one day provide the key breakthroughs in medicine and electronics. An example is the application in the tire industry of Carbon black– a material composed of nanoparticles of high-grade carbon ‘soot’. Carbon black is incorporated into tires, resulting in greatly improved durability. In 2000 total world production of carbon black for tires was 6 million tonnes (Thayer, 2003).

A new industrial revolution

Nanotechnology has been described as the new industrial revolution and developed and developing countries are investing in this new technology to secure a market share. At present the US leads with a four year, 3.7 billion US dollars (USD) investment through its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The US is followed by Japan and the European Union (EU) which have both committed substantial funds - 750 million and 1.2 billion USD respectively (EU Commission, 2005). China’s share of academic publications on nanoscale Science and Engineering, rose from 7.5% in 1995 to 18.3% in 2004, taking that country from fifth to second among the world leaders in this field.

The market for nanotechnology was 7.6 billion USD in 2003 and it is estimated that it will be 29 billion USD in 2008 and increase to approximately 1 trillion USD in 2011 (Business Communication Company Inc. 2006). The potential of nanotechnology to revolutionize the health care, textile, materials, information and communication technology and energy sectors has been well publicized. Several products enabled by nanotechnology are already on the market. The application of nanotechnology in the agricultural and food industry is still in its infancy and is predicted to transform the entire industry, changing the way food is produced, processed, packaged, transported and consumed. Its application in the agricultural and food industry was first addressed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2003).

Nanotechnology and ACP agriculture

Agriculture is the backbone of the majority of ACP countries - of which 10 are landlocked, 26 are islands and 16 are categorized among the least developed nations. More than 60% to 70% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. In 1850, 60% of America’s labour force was employed in farming, however, today, less than 2.7% of American workers are directly engaged in agriculture (Fortune, 1993). At the same time, agricultural yields have increased substantially. In 1850, a single farm produced enough food to feed 4 people, but by 1982, a single farmer produced enough food to feed 78 people (Mechanization of Agriculture, 1982). From a thermodynamic perspective, modern agriculture is the least productive form of agriculture in history. It uses far more energy inputs per unit of every output than in any previous period. A peasant farmer usually produces about 10 calories of output for each calorie expended while an American farmer, applying the most advanced technology available, can produce 6,000 calories for every calorie of human labour expended, yet, the achievement becomes less significant when we calculate the amount of energy used to produce net energy returns (Farb, 1978). To produce one can of corn containing 270 calories the farmer uses up to 2,790 calories to power the machinery and provide the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. So, a high tech American farm ends up using 10 calories of energy for every calorie of energy actually produced in the process (Farb, 1978).

Many anthropologists consider the great expansion of agricultural yield to be the singular achievement of the modern era. This accomplishment was attained by increasing reliance on mechanical labour, run on fossil fuels and by the increasing use of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides to enhance yields (Rifkin, 2002). Economic development and energy consumption are inextricably linked and so too are, energy and agriculture. Modern agriculture and food processing are dependent on oil and natural gas. Recently, an international panel of experts identified ten nanotechnology applications that are most likely to benefit developing countries. The top two on the list were Energy and Agriculture. Whenever concerns are raised about the high price or declining availability of fossil fuels, most governments worry about maintaining their electricity supply. What is often overlooked is that oil and natural gas are critical to maintaining the food production to consumption supply chain. If these resources become scarcer, more expensive and less accessible, every other aspect of contemporary life would contract. The food surpluses and the freeing up of farm labour made possible during the 20th century manufacturing revolution and later, the advances witnessed in the service and information economies will be eroded. If nanotechnology can help developing countries to move towards achieving energy and food self-sufficiency, then the technology should be further explored by the ACP scientific community.
Nanotechnology promises to reduce pesticide use, improve plant and animal breeding, and create new nano-bioindustrial products. It promises higher yields and lower input costs by streamlining agricultural management and thereby reducing waste and labour costs. It also offers the potential to employ less skilled and therefore cheaper, farm machinery operators. Nanoscience is leading to the development of a range of inexpensive nanotech applications to increase fertility and crop production. Nanotech materials are being developed for slow release and efficient dosage of fertilizers for plants and nutrients and medicines for livestock. Other developments include nanosensors to monitor the health of crops and farm animals and magnetic nanoparticles to remove soil contaminants.

Dispersed throughout fields, a network of nano-sensors would relay detailed data about crops and soils. The sensors are able to monitor plant conditions, such as the presence of plant viruses or the level of soil nutrient. Nanoparticles or nanocapsules could provide a more efficient means to distribute pesticide and fertilizers, reducing the quantities of chemicals released into the environment. Livestock may be identified and tracked using implanted nanochips. Nanoparticles may also deliver growth hormone or vaccine to livestock, or DNA for genetic engineering of plants. Particle farming is an example of harvesting nanoparticles for industrial use, by growing plants in specially prepared soils. For example, research has shown that alfalfa plants grown in gold rich soil absorb gold nanoparticles through their tissues. The gold particles can be mechanically separated from the plant tissue (Tiju and Morrison, 2006).

Theoretically, nanotech innovation may enable agricultural industry in the ACP countries to precisely control and improve production or diversify production. Such systems can simplify and centralize decision-making and as such, ACP countries could use them to transform agricultural practices but the small-size of farms, diversity of farming systems and under-investment in agriculture remain challenges that need to be addressed.

Nanotechnology and the food industry

The application of nanotechnology in the food industry has become more apparent with the initiation of consortia for better and safe food along with increased coverage in the media. Nanotechnology food applications include; smart packaging, on-demand preservation, and interactive foods. Building on the concept of on-demand food, the idea of interactive food, is to allow consumers to modify food, depending on their own nutritional needs and tastes. The concept is that thousands of nanocapsules containing flavour or colour enhancers or added nutritional elements (such as vitamins), would remain dormant in the food and will only be released when triggered by the consumer (Dunn, 2004).

Risks and ethical considerations

Technological advances have always been a two-edged sword; offering both upsides and downsides. Sometimes, even when technology has been used for good, it has had unexpected negative results. But the history of human progress is the story of our ability to exploit the benefits of technology while effectively identifying, addressing and minimizing its downside. All materials and products eventually come to the end of their useful life. This means that engineered nano-materials will ultimately enter the waste stream and find their way into land fills and incinerators and eventually into air, soil and water. As a result, it is important, in the development of nanotechnology, to consider how various forms of nano-materials will be disposed off and treated at the end of their use and how the regulatory system will treat with the handling of such materials at various stages of their life cycle. If nanotechnology is to succeed in ACP countries, the governments of these nations must have an open policy discussion that is informed by a clear understanding of the science and how products are moving from laboratories and farms to factories and stores and into people’s homes and environment.

Nanotechnology is primarily a multiplier for other technologies, proving enhanced performance and reliability. However with respect to health and environmental issues, nanotechnology may pose some unique hazards. Ethical issues including who has access to the technology and how it is to be deployed are likely to become much more complex in the coming years in ACP countries as progress in nanoscience takes place. The public needs to have confidence in the ethical conduct of science, business and government. Some ethical questions to be addressed are:

  1. Who is responsible for preventing and dealing with possible harm to health or the environment;
  2. How can intellectual property rights be defined and defended in the development of and access to nanotechnology; and,
  3. How can the public’s right to know about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology be assured.

Nanotechnology applications must comply with the requirements for high level of public health, safety, consumer and environmental protection and ethical considerations in terms of impact on livelihoods and economic resilience.

How should the ACP region go about building the necessary expertise?

Several developing countries have already launched nanotechnology initiatives. The Indian Department of Science and Technology will invest $20 million over the next four years. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Mexico, Philippines, South Africa and Thailand, are all involved in this new frontier science. They have significant nanotechnology research initiatives that could be directed toward the particular needs of the poor. Iran has adopted its own nanotechnology programme with a specific focus on agricultural application. The Iranian Agricultural Ministry is supporting a consortium of 35 laboratories working on a project to expand the use of nanotechnology in the agro sector. The Ministry is also planning to hold training programmes to develop specialized human resources in the field. They have already produced their first commercial nanotechnology product Nanocid, a powerful antibacterial product which has potential application in the food industry (Tiju and Morrison, 2006).

While nanotechnology may offer a range of solutions to a number of poverty-related problems, a more important question is whether ACP countries can build enough expertise to participate in the expected nanotechnology revolution. Taking the experiences of the North into account, the governments of the ACP region should start to invest in the necessary research infrastructure or establish centres of excellence in this field. They should facilitate the training in nanotechnology for engineers and scientists who can take a lead in future national research programmes and serve as advisors to their governments on priority application of nanotechnology in the best interest of their nations. Academic and Research Institutions in ACP countries should be encouraged to start nanoscience departments that offer degrees in these areas. If the ACP countries are to benefit from the estimated 1 trillion USD to be generated by nanotechnology related industry and businesses in the next few years, the countries themselves need to take their destinies in their own hands. They will need:

  • scientists, engineers and researchers who can perform the cutting–edge research that will keep them competitive globally;
  • industrialists and entrepreneurs who can translate scientific discovery into real world products and services;
  • engineers and technicians with technical skills for advanced manufacturing systems; and
  • entrepreneurs with the requisite technical business and cultural skills to manage the highly complex multidisciplinary and global innovation process that is emerging.

A major role of governments is to promote the progress of science and the useful art. As science and technology have become ever more critical to the fate of nations and the well-being of their citizens, ACP governments should take on additional corollaries to this role by adequately funding research and development, education, and critical research infrastructure, as well as measures to more effectively promote the transfer of “science into useful arts” for exploitation by private industries. The most fundamental role for governments in nanoscience and nanotechnology is to support research and development including long term basic research as well as development of applications relevant to specific national priorities. Another key government role is supporting tertiary institutions in developing educational resources, a skilled workforce and providing the supporting infrastructure and tools (for example laboratory facilities and instrumentation) needed for a wide spectrum of researchers both in academia and industry to advance nanotechnology.
Since nanoscale science and technology R&D requires the use of complex and expensive facilities and instrumentation, governments should put the necessary policy instruments in place to facilitate, national, North South and the South-South research cooperation. Science is not only an art but big business. Today’s science is tomorrow’s technology. No organization can promote and sustain science in respective ACP countries except the ACP governments and scientific community themselves working together with civil society and regional and international partners. Scientific knowledge must be fully exploited to increase national productivity and bring prosperity. This is a portent of hope; hope that possibly within the next few years, the ACP region may achieve socio-economic growth and prosperity through greater investment in building science capacity.

K. Anane-Fenin, Department of Physics, University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana


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