Birmingham research: Nanotech and AI to unlock global food security challenge.
Climate change, population growth, competitive demand for land for biofuel production, and declining soil quality make it increasingly difficult to feed the world’s population.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that 840 million people will be affected by hunger by 2030, but researchers have developed a roadmap that combines smart, nano-enabled agriculture with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities that could help reduce this number.
Publishing their findings today in Nature Plants, an international team of researchers led by the University of Birmingham sets out the following steps needed to use AI to harness the power of nanomaterials safely, sustainably, and responsibly:
- Understand the long-term fate of nanomaterials in agricultural environments — how nanomaterials can interact with roots, leaves, and soil;
- Assess the long-term life cycle impact of nanomaterials in the agricultural ecosystem such as how repeated application of nanomaterials will affect soils;
- Take a systems-level approach to nano-enabled 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.
Presently, agriculture has led to a very poor global NUE, which poses a serious threat to the environment; because large amounts of nutrients are lost in the water and air amounting to global warming. A large percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture.
Nano fertilizers offer an opportunity to focus on crop fertility, improve NUE and reduce nitric oxide emissions, which can support greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Targets under the UK Climate Change Act.
Precision agriculture offers exciting opportunities for sustainable food production through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. We can combine current nutrient cycles and crop productivity models with nanoinformatics approaches to make cultivation and soil more efficient — safe, sustainable, and responsible.
Study co-author Iseult Lynch, a professor of environmental science at the University of Birmingham, said: “According to current estimates, almost 690 million people are hungry — almost 9% of the planet’s population.”
The research team, which includes experts from the Hellenic Military Academy, in Vari, Greece and Novamechanics Ltd, in Nicosia, Cyprus, note that nanotechnology offers great potential to enhance agriculture in four key ways:
- Improving production rates and crop yields;
- Boosting soil health and plant resilience;
- Improving the efficiency of resources, such as fertilizer, and reducing pollution; and
- Developing smart sensor plants that can alert farmers to environmental stresses.
Co-author Dr. Peng Zhang, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Computational approaches including AI and machine learning will have a critical role in driving the progress of nano-enabled agriculture. Such approaches are already starting to gain regulatory acceptance for the safety assessment of nanomaterials, allowing the development of safe-by-design nanomaterials for consumer products and medicine.
“Integrating AI and nanotechnology into precision agriculture will play a vital role in probing the design parameters of nanomaterials for use in fertilizer and pesticide delivery to ensure minimal impacts on soil health coupled with minimal nanomaterial residues remaining in the edible tissue portions — helping to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture.”