‘Precision agriculture’, where farmers react in real time to changes in crop growth using nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), could offer a practical solution to the challenges threatening global food security , reveals a new study.
Climate change, increasing populations, competing demands for land for biofuel production and degrading soil quality mean that it is becoming increasingly difficult to feed the world’s populations.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that 840 million people will be affected by hunger by 2030, but researchers have developed a roadmap combining smart, nano-activated agriculture with AI and machine learning capabilities that could help reduce that number.
Publish their findings today in Natural plants, an international team of researchers led by the University of Birmingham are defining the following steps needed to use AI to harness the power of nanomaterials in a safe, sustainable and responsible way:
- Understanding the long-term fate of nanomaterials in agricultural environments – how nanomaterials can interact with roots, leaves and soil;
- Evaluate the long-term impact of the life cycle of nanomaterials in the agricultural ecosystem, for example how repeated application of nanomaterials will affect soils;
- Take a systems approach to nano-activated agriculture – use existing data on soil quality, crop yield and nutrient use efficiency (NUE) to predict how nanomaterials will behave in the environment ; and
- Use AI and machine learning to identify key properties that will control the behavior of nanomaterials in agricultural settings.
Study co-author Iseult Lynch, professor of environmental nanosciences at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Current estimates show that almost 690 million people are hungry, or nearly 9% of the population of the planet. Finding sustainable agricultural solutions to this problem requires us to take bold new approaches and integrate knowledge from various fields, such as materials science and computer science.
“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 nanoinformatic approaches to help crops and soil perform better – in a safe, sustainable and responsible way.
The main driver of innovation in agritech is the need to feed the growing world population with shrinking agricultural area, while preserving soil health and protecting the quality of the environment.
Intensification of agriculture has resulted in an extremely low global NUE, posing a serious threat to the quality of the environment, as large amounts of nutrients are lost in water and air, warming the planet, with nearly 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture.
Of particular concern is the emission of nitrous oxide “laughing gas” resulting from excessive nitrogen fertilization of land, which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in inducing global warming. Some 70% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions into the air come from the agricultural sector.
Nanofertilizers have the potential to target crop fertility, improve NUEs, and reduce nitrous oxide emissions, which can thus help support net greenhouse gas emissions targets. by 2050 under UK Climate Change Act.
The research team, which includes experts from the Hellenic Military Academy in Vari, Greece and Novamechanics Ltd, Nicosia, Cyprus, notes that nanotechnology has great potential to improve agriculture in four key ways:
- Improve production rates and crop yields;
- Improve soil health and plant resilience;
- Improve the efficiency of resources, such as fertilizers, and reduce pollution; and
- Develop smart sensor plants that can alert farmers to environmental stresses.
Co-author Dr Peng Zhang, Marie Skodowska-Curie researcher at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Computational approaches, including AI and machine learning, will play a critical role in the advancement of science. nanoscale agriculture. Such approaches are already beginning to gain regulatory acceptance for the safety assessment of nanomaterials, enabling the development of safe nanomaterials by design for consumer products and drugs.
“The integration of AI and nanotechnology into precision agriculture will play a critical role in exploring the design parameters of nanomaterials for use in the delivery of fertilizers and pesticides to ensure minimal impacts on soil health coupled with minimal residues of nanomaterials remaining in edible tissue parts – helping to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture. “
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