Particles that can be added to sandy or clay soils to absorb water and slowly release it—just when a plant needs it. A water filter made of tubes stronger than any other known substance and so small that only a few water molecules can pass through them. Tiny sensors that can detect and report when plants are under stress from pests, drought, or lack of soil nutrients. These and dozens of other emerging nanotechnologies, which exploit the special properties that materials exhibit at a very small scale, seem well suited to solving problems related to food and agriculture in developing countries. But a new discussion paper from IFPRI shows that actually getting these technologies to poor people will involve overcoming a host of challenges.
Nanotechnologies are materials and devices that are 1 to 100 nanometers—or billionths of a meter—in scale. How small is that? A human hair is 10,000 nanometers thick. Bacteria? 1,000 nanometers. Viruses? Now we’re getting down to the nanoscale: viruses are about 100 nanometers in size. At such small scales, materials have, among other things, different chemical reactivity, different melting properties, and different interactions with light than their larger counterparts. With the help of these characteristics, revolutionary nanotechnologies could increase agricultural productivity, enhance food and water safety, boost farmers’ competitiveness, and improve access to markets, according to Guillaume Gruère, Clare Narrod, and Linda Abbott, the authors of the IFPRI discussion paper Agriculture, Food, and Water Nanotechnologies for the Poor.
The bulk of investment in nanotechnology research is taking place in high- income countries, but some emerging and developing economies are also entering the field. Brazil, China, and India have made sizable investments. The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) is pursuing biodegradable nanoparticles for releasing fertilizers in a controlled way. Sri Lanka has set up an institute that will use nanotechnologies to make the country’s rubber and textile exports more competitive. Iran, Malaysia, and Thailand are all exploring nanotechnology applications for agriculture or food. South Africa already uses nanotechnology for treating water.
Despite this promising activity, the full potential of nanotechnologies may never be realized in some developing countries. One hurdle, according to Gruère, is that nobody really knows what the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology are, so more study is needed. Even if it is not hazardous, widespread perceptions that it is could prove just as detrimental to its adoption as actual risk. To calm people’s fears—and to get the best results—developing countries will need to regulate the nanotechnology sector, but regulation requires well-functioning institutions and entails costs. Further, although some nanotechnologies could help farmers, certain applications, such as synthetic rubber, could replace agricultural commodities, robbing some developing-country farmers of their livelihoods.
Here, the authors argue, is where the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research can play a role. The CGIAR can study ways of using nanotechnology to improve yields, ensure food safety, and enhance water quality in developing-country environments. It can apply nanotechnologies in support of food and agriculture policies by, for instance, creating hazard maps using data from nanosensors. And it can assess the risks and cost-effectiveness of nanotechnologies and help point the way to their sound governance. By answering some of the questions about nanotechnologies, the CGIAR could help turn science fiction into reality for poor people.