Nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, which is more widely known using the novel term 'nanotechnology', is an emerging multidisciplinary field that can have enormous potential impact on our society. Globally, an estimated $9 billion per year is allocated to research and development in nanotechnology, with the expectation that this investment will lead to significant advances in a variety of applications including medicine, material science, computing and electronics, industrial manufacturing, environmental remediation, energy production, military applications, among others (Hood, 2004). The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of nanotechnology and its applications, with particular focus on agriculture and food. Additionally, the main issues and concerns regarding the societal implications of rapid development in Nanoscale science will be discussed.
Applications in agriculture and food:
Although the main thrust of previous R&D investment in nanotechnology focused mainly on applications in medicine, electronics, military, manufacturing, and other life sciences, the knowledge and tools gained from development of novel Nanoscale materials and technologies in general have also led to significant benefits to food and agriculture systems (Joseph and Morrison, 2006). A number of these developments are due to the convergence of progress in other disciplines such as biotechnology and food sciences with advances in nanotechnology. Various projects dealing with nanotechnology applications in agrifood systems have been reviewed and an inventory of these projects was compiled (Kuzma and Verhage, 2006).
In general, the potential benefits of nanotechnology applications to agriculture are realized in the following areas: Agricultural production- Nanotechnology can contribute to enhancing agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner, using agricultural inputs more effectively, and reducing by-products that can harm the environment or human health. Nanotechnology-based biosensors deployed in crop fields and in the plants to monitor soil conditions, growth, and disease vectors, can expand the concept of precision farming in which productivity can be optimized while providing inputs (i.e., fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation, etc.,) and conditions (i.e., temperature, solar radiation) only in precise levels necessary (Joseph and Morrison, 2006). Similarly, nanotube sensors implanted in the skin of livestock animals can detect changes in hormone levels or unusual amounts of antibodies, thereby helping to optimize breeding procedures and to initiate veterinary interventions before the onset of diseases that can hamper growth (Scott, 2005). Similar to nanomedicine applications, pesticides and herbicides can be formulated with nanoparticles to enhance the effectiveness of the active ingredients and allow targeted delivery and release, thereby requiring less dosage per application and minimizing runoff of unutilized excess chemicals.
On the other hand, nanotechnology can also benefit from agriculture. Researchers in University of Texas - El Paso have shown that plants grown in gold-rich soil formed gold nanoparticles which can be isolated from its roots and shoots (Kalaugher, 2002). Other types of plants and growth media are also being investigated. This opens up the possibility of 'particle farming' in the future, wherein plants grown on medium rich in specific compounds are harvested for nanoparticles, rather than using the current conventional production techniques which are expensive and can be harmful to the environment.
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Nanobarcodes (i.e., cylindrical nanoparticles of varying width) can be used in tagging and tracking of food and agriculture products (Warad and Dutta, 2005). Nanoscale monitors can also
be linked to recording and tracking devices to monitor temperature and other conditions to which
the food items are exposed to from the food processing plant to the consumer (Scott, 2005).