Green Nanotechnology for Sustainable Agriculture in Malaysia

Green Nanotechnology for Sustainable Agriculture in Malaysia

Published: 2021.07.22
Accepted: 2021.07.21
30
Biotechnology and Nanotechnology Research Centre, MARDI
Former Director
Strategic Planning and Innovation Management Centre, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)

ABSTRACT

The demand for food is expected to increase with bigger growth rate as compared to its production. As a result, farmers need to open new land or intensify crop production. The over exploitation of agricultural activities will affect the environment, and subsequently impact the life of the future generations. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes the concept of sustainable agriculture to ensure the agricultural activities are carried out in good manners, and at the same time, sustain the natural resources. The government of Malaysia is concerned about the effect of excessive agricultural activities on the environment, and thus promotes the sustainable agriculture policies. One of the strategies in undertaking the sustainable agriculture is through the application of green nanotechnology. Despite the application of green nanotechnology which is relatively very new in Malaysia, the research findings indicate that this technology has a great potential in leading sustainable agriculture in the future.

Keywords: Green nanotechnology, sustainable agriculture, agricultural activities, natural resources, environment

INTRODUCTION

The challenges of food supply are expected to increase in the future. It is caused by two factors - the drastic increase in human population and the extreme changes in climate condition. The population in Malaysia is predicted to increase from 31.9 million in 2019 to 41.5 million in 2040 with an annual growth rate of 0.8% (DOSM, 2016). However, the Malaysian population is predicted to increase at a slower rate in the future, with the percentage of old age expected to have significant increase. At the same time, climate changes happen due to many factors such as the effect of greenhouse emission and global warming. This will pose serious problems with food, water and energy supply, particularly in less-developed countries.  The potential impacts of climate change in the Malaysian context would include the rise in sea-level, reduced crop yields, biodiversity loss, increased flood intensities and increased incidences of pests and diseases.  

In general, food production has not kept pace with the increase in its demand. There are many challenges faced by the agriculture sector in increasing food production. Despite the production of agricultural food is increasing every year, they are unable to fulfill the local demand.   Malaysia is only able to supply between 13% and 80% of the food demanded by local consumers. This is indicated by the self-sufficiency level (SSL) of each commodity. As a result, Malaysia needs to import the majority of the food commodities (Table 1).

In 2018, Malaysia imported agricultural food valued more than RM50.147 (US$11.94) billion, mainly the rice, fruits, vegetables, meat and meat products and coconut. For example, in the same year, Malaysia imported more than 693,000 MT of fruits, 1,887 MT of vegetables and more than 1.87 million MT of rice, and 455,000 MT of meat and meat products.

The competition in land use with other sectors such as manufacturing and housing has reduced the land area meant for food production. The land used for agriculture is estimated at around eight million hectares, or 26.1% of the arable land available in Malaysia in 2018. The percentage of land for agriculture has increased from 22.49% in 2010 to 26.08% in 2016 and sustained until 2018.  The changes in government policies from an agriculture-based economy (1960-1974) to industrial based economy (1975-1999) and urbanization eras (2000-2020) have reduced the percentage of agricultural land in Malaysia. The trend is projected to continue in the future. This situation has created a conflict between the production of food for consumption and sustaining the natural resources.

Aggressive exploitation of natural resources, as well as air and water pollution, has made individuals worried about the quality of life and well-being of future generations. The depleting rate of natural resources signals the people to be more cautious toward agricultural activities and focus on sustainable agriculture. Considering that the human pressure over natural resources has already reached critical levels, international agencies such as the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are soliciting scientific research in order to identify innovative solutions to support the primary sector. Nanotechnology is a rapidly evolving field with the potential to take forward the agriculture and food industry with new tools and promises to increase food production in a sustainable manner and to protect crops from pests and diseases. With its emerging potential and recent pressure to look for greener aspects of this technology, scientists and engineers have diverted their efforts to design and opt ways to shift this realm to benign potential. Hence, the combination of green chemistry, green technologies and nanotechnology has defined a new direction in the nanotechnology field. This paper discusses issues related to sustainable agriculture and the option of using green nanotechnology as one of the solutions.

SUSTANABLE AGRICULTURE

The concept of sustainable agriculture has been discussed and practiced for many years. The concept of sustainable agriculture focuses on how to enhance environmental quality and to find a good balance between the production of crops for food and the preservation of the ecological system in the environment. This is how a country could produce its food in good and sustainable manners by considering the environmental issues. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has defined sustainable agriculture as the management and conservation of the natural resources that include land, water, plant and animal genetics for the satisfaction of human needs in the present and future generation. Sustainable agriculture aims to provide more profitable income from agricultural activities, promote environmental stewardship and enhance quality of life for farming communities. The development of agriculture must be carried out by using appropriate technology, economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly (FAO, 1988).

The FAO spearheads the work of sustainable agriculture by defining and promoting the concept and setting the strategies for sustainable agriculture in the world. The FAO also provides assistance to member countries in setting up policies and strategies that could enhance the agriculture practice towards more sustainable manners. This action aims to ensure food security, eliminate poverty and improve the utilization of natural resources. The main principles of sustainable agriculture are: 1) improve efficiency in the use of natural resources; 2) conserving, protecting and enhancing natural ecosystem; 3) protecting and improving rural livelihoods and social well-being; 4) enhancing the resilience of people, communities and ecosystem; and 5) promoting good governance of both the natural and human systems. These principles serve as a guidance for every country in setting up policies, strategies and programs related to agriculture activities and food production. 

The agriculture activities involve the supply chain of food production from farm to table. These activities use many resources that include land, water, fertilizers, chemicals and human resources. Agricultural activities must be carried out in a good manner to ensure that the resources are used efficiently and optimally, so that it can be used for present and future generation. The activities require good management, knowledge, skill and technologies that could speed up the process. The combination of these activities will improve the efficiency of natural resources, and as a result, will increase the productivity and quality of agricultural produce. Sustainable agriculture will increase productivity through a balance use of resources and input, and at the same time support the potential benefits of the ecosystem.

The degradation of agro-ecosystem will affect the food supply and eventually affect the farmers’ income. Over exploitation of resources such as the cutting of forests, over use of fertilizers and chemicals will deplete the ecosystem. For example, excessive cutting of forests will reduce the emission of carbon dioxide, which is required by crops. Over use of fertilizers and chemicals will kill insects that pollinate crops or as biological control agents to reduce the population of pests. Hence, protecting and restoring the ecosystem for agricultural activities that include land, river or irrigation system, forest and soil are very crucial. There are many techniques for agricultural conservation such as using cover crops and diversified cropping system, minimizing soil disturbance and promoting soil health.

The agricultural activities provide employment and serve as one of the sources of income for farmers and entrepreneurs. According to the World Bank report in 2007, it is estimated that more than 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas. The development of agricultural activities created job opportunities for people living in rural areas. Thus, the agricultural activities must benefit the people in that area. In other words, agricultural activities do not serve only as the supplier of food for people in rural and urban areas, but also must protect and improve the livelihood of people involved in the activities.

Resilience is another key principle of sustainability in agriculture. The FAO defined resilience as the capacity of agro-ecosystems, farming communities, households or individuals to maintain or enhance agricultural productivity by preventing, mitigating or coping with risks, adapting to changing climate and recovering from shocks. It is how fast the government or the farmers’ strategic efforts to overcome the shocks from disasters or troubles. Resilience can be enhanced through comprehensive government policies, strategies and plans, risk managements strategies, insurance and grants by the government. At the same time, government could provide incentives or assistance should any disaster happen and destroy the farms.

In the context of Malaysia, the government plays a significant role in recovering the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the agriculture sector. The Malaysian government provides grants and financial assistance to farmers who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysia has taken the necessary measures to support the affected industries, including agriculture, to protect the economy and more importantly, help ease the people’s burden during these trying times. During the Movement Restricted Order (MCO), the government provides about RM21.00 (US$5.00 billion) assistance under its stimulus package and additional allocations to address the economic risks associated with the pandemic. Grants of RM1,000.00 (US$238.10) to 10,000.00 (US$2,380.00) was given to local entrepreneurs to promote the sale of their products on e-commerce platforms. RM10 (US$2.38) million was allocated to the Federal Marketing Authority (FAMA) to provide food storage facilities to help reduce food prices.

The final principle of sustainable agriculture is promoting good governance to both natural and human system. Good governance is the process in which an institution produces results that meet the needs of society while making the best use of resources at their disposal. It also means the protection of the environment for sustainable natural resources. In order to protect its natural resources, a country needs good governance that includes comprehensive policies that are put in-place, legal enforcement is carried out transparently to exercise the rule of law. 

The implementation of the five principles needs inter-sector integration at the national and district levels. An integrated approach facilitates collaboration among sectors and ensures that policies and programs are carried out efficiently at all levels of stakeholders. The implementation needs to be carried out based on the national vision and shared by all players in the industries that include the government agencies, the private sector and farming community.

Agricultural activities

The agriculture sector contributed 7.3% to Malaysia’s GDP in 2019, valued around RM101.5 (US$24.16) billion, down from 8.3% in 2015 and 10% in 2010. Palm oil contributed a bigger share of the agriculture sector which amounted to around 36.5%, followed by livestock (15.9%) and fisheries (12.5%). Other prominent agricultural activities include the cultivation of paddy, fruits, vegetables, coconut and cereals. The agriculture sector is the main source of food production. Every year, the agriculture sector produces more than 24 million tons of food, including 19.5 million tons of cereals, roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables, more than one million tons of meat and more than two billion liter of milk (Table 1).

The production of agricultural products needs water for irrigation, fertilizers, and chemicals for controlling pests and diseases. As a result, the agricultural activities deteriorated natural resources and affected the environment.

For many years, the agriculture sector used traditional agricultural practices. In the early years, farmers moved from one area to another to find fertile land or when the land is infertile and not suitable to be planted with food crops. The opening of new land area or forest for agricultural activities has affected the environment. The biodiversity that includes flora and fauna were affected or destroyed. Many virgin jungles for water catchment areas have been cleared and thus affected the water supply for human consumption as well as for irrigation.   The loss of trees and other vegetation can contribute to the effects of climate change, desertification, soil erosion and flooding. One of the most dangerous and unsettling effects of deforestation is the loss of animal and plant species due to their loss of habitat.

The Green revolution has changed the way agricultural activities are carried out. Farmers started using modern technologies and employed good agricultural practices. Farmers applied modern agriculture that used advanced technology, which is less labor intensive, provide an efficient and effective process of agriculture production. Modern technologies also produce better yields and maintain quality of the produce. Modern technology includes new plant varieties, plant breeding techniques, the application of fertilizers and chemicals for plant protection. The green revolution is also concerned about the environment - how agriculture practice should be balanced between the production of food and at the same time, sustain the environment.      

Today’s agriculture uses sophisticated technologies such as robots, satellite imagery, drones and other aerial imagery devices, sensor devises, farming software and online data, merging datasets and GPS technology. These technologies improve the lives of farmers by providing information on production supply, demand, the pricing and logistics of agricultural produce. The use of modern technology ensures that farmers grow food at a shorter time. There is also increase in productivity and reduction in production cost. Hence, farmers earn more profits, become more efficient, are safer and work on more environmentally friendly conditions.

Sustainable agriculture vision in Malaysia is in line with the country’s sustainable development goals to uplift income status of target groups such as farmers, livestock breeders, fishermen and agro-based entrepreneurs. The government also plans to transform the agricultural sector through the formulation of the National Agro-food Policy (NAFP, 2021-2030), which is to be the catalyst for the country’s modernization of agriculture outlook in the next decade. One of the strategies set in the NAFP is to apply modern technologies in the supply chain of agricultural production.

APPLICATION OF NANOTECHNOLIGY IN AGRICULTURE

Nanotechnology is expected to become the catalyst of the next technology revolution in the agriculture sector. 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. 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 (GNI). The government has estimated that nanotechnology activities has contributed at least 1% of the GNI valued around RM17 (US$4.04) billion at the end of 2020.

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$0.312) billion in 2025. 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. The main goal of the application of green nanomaterials in modern agriculture is to decrease usage of environmentally harmful inputs, reduce losses of costly fertilization, increase inputs use efficiency and yields through need-based management. At the same time, the application of green nanotechnology will improve production process, precise agriculture practices, and as a result, increase the productivity. These will lead to a sustainable economic and social benefits.

Green nanomaterials are materials synthesized based on environmentally friendly principles. These materials play a key role to minimize emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, a particularly significant decrease in releases amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane from the agriculture field. Furthermore, green nanomaterials minimize the troubles in agricultural practices concern to the human health and environment under a changing climate, increase food and nutritional security and agricultural productivity as required to rapidly increasing global population.

While steady progress has been made in the development of green nanotechnology and the accompanying toxicology and analysis, large-scale commercialization has yet to occur. Uncertainty surrounding the costs of bringing these products to markets, which would include the need to develop these new commercialization technologies and analysis protocols, could increase the financial uncertainty, making them riskier and less attractive investments. Like all innovations, the process through which green nanotechnology moves from the laboratory into the market involves a series of steps, and the involvement of a number of institutions. For green nanotechnology, this process usually involves universities, smaller start-up companies and finally large companies. In most cases, there are also other groups that become directly or indirectly involved, including government agencies (MARDI etc.), financial backers, consumers and even NGOs.

There are many green nanotechnology-based products related to agriculture and agro-based industries being developed and some of them have entered the market. High-efficiency ‘slow-release fertilizers’ have been widely used in agriculture in Europe, the United States, Japan and Taiwan. Several agricultural-based companies in Malaysia have also begun to be interested in the use of this type of fertilizer. This type of fertilizer is said to be able to increase agricultural yields as well as save money. ‘Nano-activators’ or ‘nano-stimulants’ that function as stimulants of fruit production are also among the nanotechnology products that have been marketed and are in high demand in modern agriculture. It is said to be able to increase agricultural yields from 20% to 50%.

Nano-sensor devices (nano-sensors) of the chemical-sensor type based on nano-structured materials have been used to determine the effectiveness of fertilizer use in the plantation sector. Apart from that, this detector is also used to monitor pesticide residues in the water, it is very beneficial to ensure water pollution in agricultural areas and its environment. The use of nano-particles in transport systems in soil, water and trees is also a technology that must be explored to further develop the use of nanotechnology. The use of nutrient-coated nano-particles with animal feed is essential as it has a rapid effect. It is very useful in livestock such as chickens and cattle as well as aquatic animals such as fish and shrimp. These green based nanotechnologies are entering the markets and is projected to dominant the application of technology in the agriculture sector.

Green nanotechnology has been making great forward progress, but the challenges presented above point to an agenda of actions where involvement by the scientific research community, industry and government could bring about changes that would be crucial to supporting a more rapid and effective commercialization of green nanotechnology. The government needs to develop new policies that could spearhead the development and the commercialization of green nanotechnology, design guidelines for production of green nanomaterials and educate people about the potential impacts and benefits of green nanotechnology for sustainable agriculture in Malaysia.

The benefits of green nanotechnology

In general, the word “green technology” refers to sustainable technology that has a short and long-term impact on the environment. Green products can be defined as environmentally friendly, energy efficient, has recycling capacity, health and safety concerns and renewable resources. In other words, green is always referred as safety and sustainable. Green nanotechnology is a technology related to the development and application of nano materials to minimize degradation to the environment, safe to use and provide a healthier and better environment for all living. There are two aspects of green nanotechnology production. The first aspect involves the production of products, equipment or systems with the aim of minimizing harm to humans or the environment. Typically, most non nano-materials are produced through chemical synthetics that require a large amount of energy consumption and lead to pollution of nature. Through green nanotechnology, nano materials are synthesized using more environmentally friendly materials such as bacteria, fungi, yeast, actinomycetes, enzymes and various parts of plants (such as leaves, roots and fruits), and safer reactions. In other words, reactions that do not use chemicals are safer.

The second aspect is related to the use of nano products to conserve the environment and natural resources. The generation of new energy such as fuels, thermoelectric devices, solar cells and more efficient batteries through green nanotechnology is seen as a good step in conserving energy and natural resources, while promoting the use of renewable energy. In general, the use of green nanotechnology in agriculture is to protect plants, increase crop yields, and at the same time, preserve ecosystems. For example, nano materials produced through green nanotechnology methods have successfully reduced the use of chemicals, loss of nutrients from fertilizers and increased agricultural yields through disease and pest management. The production of sensors using green nanotechnology materials for early diagnostics of plant diseases and detection of pesticide contamination in soil as well as water has boosted the agriculture and food industries. The use of green nanotechnology in Malaysia is still limited, compared to developed countries. Although its use is not yet widespread, the concept of green nanotechnology is fully supported by many stakeholders, and thus will become the new wealth creator in Malaysia.

CONCLUSION

Green nanotechnology has contributed significantly to the supply of food in Malaysia that includes the production of food products in the farmlands, and during the post-harvest process and delivery to consumers. Green nanotechnology helps increase the agricultural productivity, boosts pest-resistance and improves food quality. As a country that depends on the agriculture sector as a source of food, Malaysia should use the advantages of green nanotechnology in facing the challenges of climate change and food security. Naturally, like changes and paradigm shifts, if they happen, there are definitely good and bad. The level of awareness on green nanotechnology in Malaysia is still low but increasing. By using the right approach, green nanotechnology is expected to be implemented safely and could benefit the universal human being.

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