Contribution of Nanotechnology to Food Security in Malaysia

Contribution of Nanotechnology to Food Security in Malaysia

Published: 2020.11.24
Accepted: 2020.11.23
40
Former Director
Strategic Planning and Innovation Management Centre, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
Biotechnology and Nanotechnology Research Centre, MARDI

ABSTRACT

The application of nanotechnology in the agriculture sector is relatively new in Malaysia. The initiatives towards the development of nanotechnology just began in 2006 and the policies related to nanotechnology were set up in 2011. The government and people of Malaysia are aware of the importance of nanotechnology, and started to invest in the research and development and commercialization of products that contain nanomaterials. The nanotechnology products started to flood the markets and benefit consumers, as well as generate revenue for the country. The contribution of nanotechnology is projected to increase every year and valued at around RM1.3 (US$0.309) billion in 2025, mostly from manufacturing and engineering industries. As the nanotechnology industry is still new and at its exploration stage, the contribution of nanotechnology to the agriculture sector is still speculative and based on estimation. This paper discusses the development of agronanotechnology and its contribution to food security in Malaysia.

Keywords: Nanotechnology, nanomaterials, agriculture sector, food security

INTRODUCTION

Nanotechnology is the science of materials and system with structures and components that display improved novel physical, chemical and biological properties, which is existing in the nano-size scale (Halimaton, 2014). Nanomaterial is made up of small particles that range between 1 and 100 nanometres (Nur Azura et al., 2017). The small size of nanomaterials makes it more chemically effective and affects their strength or electrical properties. These particles form structures and systems with unique physical, chemical and biological properties that enabled novel application (Basir et al., 2020). Nanomaterials exist in a form of chemicals that can be found in the elements of Silver (Ag), Gold (Au), Iron (Fe), Cadmium (Cd), Titanium Dioxide (TiO2), Iron Oxide (Fe2O3), Carbon Nanotubes (CNT) and Fullerence, a form of Carbon (C).

The term nanotechnology was coined by Norio Taniguichi of Tokyo University as a process of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule (Nanomerk, 2020). Nanomaterials can occur naturally, be created as the byproducts of combustion reactions, or be produced purposefully through engineering to perform a specialized function. The use of nanomaterials spans across a wide variety of industries, including agriculture. The properties of nanomaterials, particularly their size, offer various different advantages compared to the bulk-form of the materials, and their versatility in terms of the ability to tailor them for specific requirements accentuates their usefulness. The additional advantage is their high porosity, which increases the demand for their use in many industries.

Nanotechnology improves existing industrial processes, materials and application by scaling them down to the nanoscale in order to ultimately fully exploit the unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale. This process could improve the existing products by creating smaller components and better performance materials, at a lower cost. Nanoproducts can be found in many industrial products that include agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and agrochemicals for pesticides. Nanotechnology monitors a leading agricultural process, enhancing food quality and safety, reducing the application of agricultural inputs, enriching of absorbing nutrients from soil and many other benefits. The application of fertilizers with nanoparticles will minimize nutrient losses in fertilization and increase yield through pest and nutrient management. The benefit of nanotechnology was proven in many developed countries through the development of nanoproducts. In Malaysia, the significant contribution of nanotechnology has been recognized in the medical, engineering and industrial sectors. However, the contribution of nanotechnology to the agriculture sector in Malaysia is still unknown as the industry is still small and at the infancy stage in Malaysia. This paper discusses the development of nanotechnology and its contributions in addressing food security in Malaysia. 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF NANOTECHNOLOGY IN MALAYSIA

The development of nanotechnology in Malaysia began in early 2000 with the formation of a number of research groups (Halimaton, 2014). Consequently, the National Nanotechnology (NN) initiatives were started in 2006 when the National Innovation Council identified nanotechnology as one of the new growth for the New Economic Model (NRM). The National Nanotechnology Center (NNC) was established in 2010, and serves as the National Focal Point for the coordination of research, development and all related activities of nanotechnology in Malaysia. The functions of the National Nanotechnology Center are to integrate all local nanotechnology activities, coordinate and plan the research and development (R&D) activities, prepare platform for commercialization and transfer of technology. NanoMalaysia Berhad was incorporated in 2011 as a company limited by guarantee under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) to act as a business entity entrusted with nanotechnology commercialization activities. Among the roles of NanoMalaysia are to coordinate research and development (R&D) and commercialize the nanotechnology activities; to facilitate the investments related to nanotechnology, and develop human capital in Malaysia.

Nanotechnology is an emerging and very powerful research tool. It allows researchers to obtain and compare the characteristics of the full spectrum of nanomaterials, as well as the composition and preparation methods. In Malaysia, there are many research institutions conducting nanotechnology research that includes:

  • Biotechnology and Nanotechnology Research Center, MARDI
  • IbnuSina of Microengineering and Nanotechnology Science Studies, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
  • Institute of Microengineering and Nanotechnology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
  • Centre of Innovative Nanostructures and Nanodevice Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS
  • Institute of Nano Electronics Engineering, Universiti Malaysia Perlis
  • NEMS/MEMS Research Laoratory, MIMOS
  • Institute of Advanced Materials, Universiti Putra Malaysia
  • NanoOpto-Electronics Research Lab, Universiti Sains Malaysia
  • Nanotechnology and Catalysis Research Center, Universiti Malaya

The Biotechnology and Nanotechnology Research Center at MARDI is the leading research center that focuses on agro-based products. The center was established in 1980 but the focus then was on agrobiotechnology. In 2019, the center was enhanced to include nanotechnology as the focal research.

Nanotechnology is expected to become the catalyst of the next technology revolution in the agriculture sector. As it is new to Malaysian people, a study on the public awareness and perception on nanotechnology among Malaysians revealed that about 50% of the public are aware about nanotechnology in 2014. Another survey by MASTIC in 2018 shows that the awareness toward nanotechnology has increased to about 86%. This data shows that people in Malaysia are starting to understand about the importance of nanotechnology and its contributions to economic development. The government and public sector started to invest in research and development and the commercialization of innovation products created by nanotechnology research. 

The commercialization of nanoproducts or products that use nanomaterials is important as it will benefit the society as a whole. Despite increase in the awareness about the benefit of nanotechnology, people are still less confident in using products with nanomaterials. Thus, the government are promoting this technology and encouraging the commercialization of nanotechnology products. Collaboration between government research institutions and public universities are intensified so that many technologies can be commercialized and reach the marketplace. A report by NanoMalaysia shows that, between 2016 and 2019, 12 patents, seven copyrights and one utility innovation have been filed with MyIPO, 113 products have been commercialized and 71 products have been developed by the industry. More and more users are starting to gain confidence on that nanomaterials can be beneficial.   

FOOD SECURITY

In general, food security can be defined as the availability of safe, nutritious food and sufficient access to it by people in a country, so that they can live healthily. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has suggested three important components of food security that include sufficiency in food production, stability in food supplies and affordability of the people to buy the food at any time they required. The food security issues occur because of increase in demand for food due to growing population, while the production is insufficient to supply the food products.

Food security is normally associated with the agriculture sector. This sector is the main source of food supply. Currently, the agriculture sector is facing many issues and challenges that include extreme climate change, the implementation of trade liberalization that allows the movement of products across borders freely, competition in using land with other sectors such as housing, manufacturing and industrial crop commodities.

The government of Malaysia has instituted many initiatives and policies that could increase the productivity of agricultural products and sustainable agriculture system. The Ministry of Agriculture and Agrobased Industry has implemented the Food Security Policy in 2008 and then further enhanced in the National Agricultural Policy (2011-2020) (NAP). Under the NAP, the government put in place specific short and long-term measures to ensure the availability of food commodity, especially rice, which is the staple food of Malaysian people. The food security activities have been coordinated between ministries to ensure all efforts will benefit the people and the stakeholders.

These policies and initiatives aimed to increase the supply of food products from the domestic farmlands and at the same time reduce the dependence on food imports. Under this policy, the government aims to improve productivity and income of farmers, fishermen and smallholders by accelerating the adoption of ICTs and farming technologies, preserving and optimizing agricultural lands, and intensifying R&D&C in priority areas. The use of smart farming and the application of technology (including nanotechnology) have been intensified to improve production efficiency and reduce dependency on labor.

Supply of food

The agriculture sector is the main source of food products in Malaysia. The agriculture sector is divided into two sub-sectors called industrial crops that include oil palm, rubber and cocoa; and the agro-food sub-sector that include rice, fruits, vegetables, livestock and fisheries. The ministry of Agriculture and Agrobased Industry aspires to increase the production of all agrofood commodities. Many initiatives and policies have been introduced to ensure that food supply is sufficient for local consumption and for export. Malaysia plans to increase the self-sufficiency level (SSL) of all food crops by intensifying crop production, enhancing the production system through the application of new technologies. The government has seen nanotechnology as another option that could increase the food supply at a reasonable cost.

The supply of food products shows a decreasing trend since early 2000, and it becomes a concern for the government. The government has taken many initiatives to increase the production, but it seems that the productivity increased very marginally. The production of food products is shown in Table 1.

Table 1 shows that the production of food products is decreasing every year, and this trend is expected to continue should the government do not take any comprehensive actions. The government believes that the application of nanotechnology is another strategy that could boost up the productivity of agricultural commodities and thus, address the issue of food insecurity.

CONTRIBUTION OF NANOTECHNOLOGY

Nanotechnology is an enabling technology for advance materials and products that are promising to contribute to many frontiers of science and technology. Nanotechnology provides a set of enabling tools, processes for manipulating matter and new products based on nanoscale materials and process that will impact the agriculture sector.  Nanotechnology has provided enhanced and efficient solutions to various applications in the medical, electronic and devices, energy and environment and agriculture in Malaysia.  Despite new in the industry, within 2016-2019 nanotechnology has contributed more than RM3.5(US$0.833) billion (direct) and RM17.5 (US$4.16) billion (indirect) to the Gross National Income (NanoMalaysia, 2020). The government also projected that nanotechnology activities will contribute at least 1% of the gross national income (GNI) valued around RM17 (US$4.05) billion at the end of 2020 (Halimah, 2014).

Agriculture is an important sector in Malaysia. The national policy on food security focused on increasing the self-sufficiency level of food commodities. New technologies are developed particularly in precision agriculture technology to optimize crop yield in terms of quantity and quality. The use of nanomaterials is quite new in agriculture and it requires additional research. However, it has gained a good momentum since the government identified this technology as another engine of economic growth. The contribution of nanotechnology is increasing gradually, and the total nanotechnology market size in food and agriculture and its estimated value is more than RM1.31 (US$0.31) billion in 2025 (NanoMalaysia 2019). The contribution of nanotechnology to food and agriculture can be divided into four categories that include R&D on Nanotechnology, Nanofiber, Nanocellulose (Forestry Nanotechnology and Filtration system), food processing and management (smart packaging) and Nanofertilizer (Bio-active ingredient detection and database).

R&D on nanotechnology

Research in nanotechnology is necessary for a sustainable development of the agriculture sector. The Malaysian government has taken a serious concern over the development of nanotechnology in the country. R&D on nanotechnology was started by government research institutions in 2001 and categorized as strategic research program. Currently, many nanotechnology applications are being researched and tested in laboratories. The research is based on discoveries in physics and chemistry that have the ability to manipulate the properties of those materials. The applications of nanotubes, fullerenes, biocensors, controlled delivery systems and nanofiltration for example, were proved to be good in resources management in agriculture. Nanotechnology is believed to be the driver of technology advancement in Malaysia, and will contribute to a better quality of life through quality products and processes. The outcomes of R&D are innovative products that could enhance the quality of crops, fertilizers, chemicals and others. R&D in nanotechnology will lead to the filing of the intellectual property rights or patents relating to nanotechnology.

Technology transfer is an essential step in realizing positive economic benefits from technology development. Through technology transfer, nanotechnology products will be brought to the marketplace and benefits consumers that include farmers, breeders and entrepreneurs. The potential for financial returns from patents will create an economic impact to individual researcher and corporation that market the products. The researcher will receive royalty from the corporation, while the corporation will gain profits from selling the products in the marketplace. In general, the contribution of nanotechnology to the agriculture sector can be summarized in Table 2.

Production of food crops

Nanotechnology has contributed significantly to the supply of food in Malaysia that include in the production of food products in the farmlands, during the post-harvest process and delivery to consumers. Nanotechnology can help increase agricultural productivity, boost pest-resistance and improve food quality. Nanotechnology is used in the agrochemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Nanotechnology provides new agrochemical agents and new delivery mechanism that could improve productivity of crops and reduced the application of pesticide, thus reduced the cost of production. Agricultural productivity can be improved through nanomaterial-induced genetically improved animals and plants (Kuzma, 2007), site-specific drugs and gene delivery of molecules at cellular levels in animal and plants (Maysinger, 2007). The usage of nanoparticles in seeds before sowing is comparatively safe as several metabolic, physiological and morphological changes occur before the plant biomass or seed production takes place (Alaa and Tawfiq, 2019). As a result, the seeds are germinated beautifully and produced higher yield (Prasad et al., 2014). 

Nanobiosensors

The development of biosensors is also one of the strengths of nanotechnology. Currently, the nanotechnology-based biosensors are at the early development stage. Only a few technology related to biosensors have been commercialized. The application of nanosensors in crop protection could help in the identification of diseases and residue of agrochemicals. The application of nanoscale materials can improve the biosensors through its rapid, sensitive and cost-effective system. The property of nanomaterials could improve the sensitivity and the performance of biosensors. However, currently, no data were published as evidence of the real contributions of nanobiosensors to the agricultural industry.

Nanofertilizers and pesticides

Fertilizers are required for maintaining soil fertility. The application of conventional fertilizers causes losses by leaching, drifting, runoff water, evaporation and lead to degradation of soil. On the other hand, overuse of fertilizers causes environmental pollution. Thus, optimum use of fertilizers as per demand by a crop is important and critical. This will improve the soil quality and at the same time reduce the cost of production.

The application of nanomaterials in nanofertilizers has proven to improve the quality and effectiveness of the fertilizers because it contains nanozinc, silica, iron and titanium dioxide and other elements. Nanoencapsulation of fertilizers is done in three ways: i) encapsulated in nanoporous materials, ii) coated with this film polymer, or iii) delivered as nanoparticle of nanoemulsiaons (Rai et al., 2012). The nanoparticles serve as the coating of the granule fertilizer and it helps the crops to absorb the nutrients from the fertilizer efficiently. Nanotechnology can be used to produce slow-released nanofertilizer for fertilizer use by plants; nanoparticles encapsulated pesticides for demand release; site-specific drug and nutrient delivery in fisheries and livestock and nanosensors for assessing plant health and soil quality.

The use of nanomaterials in plant protection also has improved the management of crops and has reduced the yield losses. The application of nanoencapsulated pesticide formulation has resulted with slow releasing properties with enhanced solubility, specificity, permeability and stability. In other words, the formulation of nanoencapsulated pesticide has led to reduce the dosage of pesticides and as a result, farmers are protected and safe. Thus, it is reducing environmental impacts to ecosystem (Kah and Hofmann, 2014). The NanoMalaysia estimated that the share of nanofertilizers in the fertilizer industry could reach 28.6% and could increase the revenue from paddy industry valued around RM1.73 (US$0.41) billion in 2025. 

Food process and food packaging

Nanotechnology has also been applied in food processing such as nanocarrier system for delivery of nutrients and supplements, organic nano-sized additives for food, supplements, and animal feeds. Several nanomaterials are used as antimicrobial and anti-fungal agents in food packaging, as coating agents of the plastic polymers, and these applications could sustain the quality of food. In other words, nanocoating on food could act as the barrier or antimicrobial properties.  For example, the gold nanomaterial has high temperature stability and low volatility and antifungal and antimicrobial affects against 150 bacteria (Ghidan and Antary, 2020).

CONCLUSION

In general, nanotechnology could promote sustainable agriculture. However, it is too early to measure the economic impact of nanotechnology to the agriculture sector in Malaysia. The development of nanotechnology is still in the stage of discovery and the infrastructure is in progress. Despite of it being new, people in Malaysia are aware of the importance of nanotechnology as the driver of technology advancement and are ready to invest in this industry. Investments made by both public and private sector is critical and believed to be the major factor for the success of nanotechnology in Malaysia.

Nanotechnology could revolutionize the agricultural sector, such as in the production system and management and in the supply-chain from production to consumers. However, since this technology is relatively new and at the infancy stage of research and development, the potential advantages nanotechnology should be balanced with the potential risks. The nanotechnology could result as destructive to the environment and quality of life of the people. Social and ethical repercussions of nanotechnology uses in agriculture have to be considered and the negative impact must be evaluated.

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