Using nanotechnology to enhance agriculture in the country
Tamil Nadu Agriculture University has researched, developed and come up with nano-technology solutions to minimise pollution, increase yield of crops and extend the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables.
Pankaja Srinivasan 24 Feb 2023 11:38 AM GMT
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
In the hallowed premises of the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) in Coimbatore, that is more than a 100 years old, the relatively new department of nano science and technology is working on nano-solutions to enhance the quality of agriculture in the country.
“Agriculture uses a lot of inputs, such as fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and fungicides. The crops use just about 20 to 30 per cent of the conventional inputs, and the rest of it remains as residue in the soil or permeates into the groundwater or the atmosphere,” said KS Subramanian, director of research. He was also NABARD Chair Professor, TNAU between 2017 and 2020.
Subramanian is one of the pioneers in the country who has years of research and experience behind him in the field of nano-technology agro support. In 2017 NABARD set up a NABARD Professor Chair at the department of Nano Science and Technology at TNAU. The chair was awarded to Subramanium for three years with a financial support of Rs One Crore over three years (September 2017-August 2020).
TNAU has researched, developed and come up with nano-technology solutions to minimise pollution, increase yield of crops and improve the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables.
“Nano technology improves the efficiency of agricultural inputs. These products can be used in precise amounts, to their optimal level, and they are cost effective,” the director said.
“More than one lakh crore rupees worth of fertilisers are imported into the country. And nano-products can bring about huge savings to the exchequer,” Subramaniun pointed out. “One 500 ml bottle of urea is equivalent to one 50-kg bag of urea. The 500 ml of urea costs Rs 240 as of now and is sufficient for an acre of land,” he explained.
Nano solutions to protect fruits and vegetables
One of the immediate benefits of using a nano-product was reducing colossal wastage. India is the second largest producer in the world with 330 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables per annum. But, for every three fruits one fruit is lost (35 per cent).
A TNAU project has enabled Subramanian to develop a series of nano-products to preserve fruits, increase their shelf life and reduce waste. The experiments are on across Tamil Nadu in mango and banana cultivation. “If we can minimise even10 per cent of the losses, it means a huge saving for the country,” he pointed out.
Some of the nano-products developed by TNAU include a formulation that keeps fruits and vegetables fresh, extends their shelf life and protects them from post harvest diseases. This has been developed by TNAU in collaboration with University of Guelph, Canada.
“More than 5,000 farmers growing mangoes and bananas used the formulation over five years with significant success. These were farmers from Krishnagiri, Theni, Dharmapuri, Dindigul and Kanyakumari districts. Eighty per cent of the farmers reported less incidence of disease and therefore better profits,” he added.
Special stickers and pellets have also been developed (they are registered for patenting). The stickers/pellets can be put into the packing boxes containing the fruits and this helps keep the contents fresh during storage or transportation.
Nano solution for seeds
Machineries hum in the processing lab at the Nano Science and Technology department. Pointing to a glass enclosed apparatus, Subramanium said it was coating seeds.
“Seeds of cotton, green moong, okra and paddy among others are coated fine nano-fibres that contain all the nourishment, protection from pests, growth regulators, etc,” the scientist explained. According to him, these already prepped and primed seeds are of great help to the farmer who does not then have to worry about treating seeds and handling fungicides, pesticides, etc.
Nano-urea, one of the products developed at TNAU, has already been used with considerable success on ten acres each of rice and maize in the Bhavani Sagar area in Tamil Nadu. The yield has increased by 10 to 15 per cent, Subramanium said. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research then conducted observation trials across 11,000 locations in the country, where the nano-urea was distributed to farmers through 650 Krishi Vigyan Kendras.
Recently in May 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world's first Nano Urea Liquid plant by IFFCO at Kalol, Gujarat. This was to boost productivity and help increase their income.
“IFFCO developed a nano-urea. And, it was scientifically validated and bio-safety-tested by TNAU. This helped in notification of the first nano-fertiliser in the country by the Fertiliser Control Order in February 2021,” informed Subramanium.
While some of the nano product technology has already been forwarded to Agri Business Directorate-TNAU, others are ready for pilot trials. TNAU is also coordinating pilot testing along with pesticide companies and agro-related industries.
Nano-technolgy is being enlisted to detect diseases in crops, measure the nitrogen and moisture content in the soil, ensure the products are not harmful to humans and farm animals, etc.
“We are currently working on linking nano-devices to the farmers in such a way that the farmers will be alerted through SMS if their crops are found to have any deficiencies,” Subramanian said.
"Nano-technology has immense potential. But, in order to use it to its optimum, we have to overcome some challenges,” the scientist said.
According to him, the foremost challenge was financial support to keep the research and development going. The second was to have policies that were in alignment with scientific research.
According to Subramanium, there has to be awareness about what is happening in the labs amongst different levels of people ranging from the user, the farmer to the policy makers, the government. He also said research and development could benefit if red tapism were curtailed. It took an inordinately long time for government funds to actually materialise. “If processes continue to be complicated and cumbersome, innovation, experiments and discoveries will dry up,” he warned.
This story has been done as part of a partnership with NABARD