Nanotech and artificial intelligence (AI) could be vital in the process of ‘precision agriculture’, which lets farmers respond in real time to changes in crop growth, a new study reveals. Issues such as climate change, competing demands on land for production of biofuels and declining soil quality have made it increasingly difficult to feed the world’s population. The United Nations estimates that 840 million people will be affected by hunger by 2030, however, researchers have developed a roadmap combining smart and nanoenabled agriculture with AI and machine learning capabilities that is likely to reduce this number.
According to an international team of researchers, nanotechnology offers great potential to enhance agriculture in four key ways. It can improve production rates and crop yields, boost soil health and plant resilience, improve the efficiency of resources such as fertiliser, and develop smart sensor plants that can alert farmers to environmental stresses. The researchers suggested that using AI to harness the power of nanomaterials can be done safely, sustainably and responsibly. For example, understanding the long term fate of nanomaterials in agricultural environments can help explain how nanomaterials can interact with roots, leaves and soil. This helps assess the long term life cycle impact of nanomaterials in the agricultural ecosystem and how repeated application of nanomaterials will affect soils. Using AI and machine learning to identify key properties will help control the behaviour of nanomaterials in agricultural settings.
“Current estimates show nearly 690 million people are hungry, almost nine per cent of the planet’s population,” Iseult Lynch, professor of environmental nanoscience at the university of Birmingham and study co author, said. “Finding sustainable agricultural solutions to this problem requires us to take bold new approaches and integrate knowledge from diverse fields, such as materials science and informatics. Precision agriculture, using nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, offers exciting opportunities for sustainable food production. We can link existing models for nutrient cycling and crop productivity with nanoinformatics approaches to help both crops and soil perform better safely, sustainably and responsibly.”
The main reason for innovation in agritech is the need to feed the increasing global population with a decreasing agricultural land area, whilst conserving soil health and protecting environmental quality. Intensification of agriculture has resulted in extremely poor global nitrogen use efficiency (NUE), which poses a serious threat to environmental quality as large amounts of nutrients are lost to water and air warming the planet, with nearly 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture. For example, the emission of the ‘laughing gas’ nitrous oxide is a result of excessive nitrogen fertilisation of land, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in inducing global warming. Some 70 per cent of the anthropogenic source nitrous oxide emissions into air are contributed from the agricultural sector.
Nano fertilisers offer the potential to target crop fertility, enhance NUE and reduce nitrous oxide emission, which can thus help support the net zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050 targets under the UK Climate Change Act.
“Computational approaches including AI and machine learning will have a critical role in driving the progress of nano enabled agriculture,” Dr Peng Zhang, a Marie Skłodowska Curie research fellow at the University of Birmingham, commented. “Integrating AI and nanotechnology into precision agriculture will play a vital role in ensuring minimal impacts on soil health coupled with minimal nanomaterial residues remaining in the edible tissue portions, helping to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture.”