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Posted: Feb 17, 2011

Agricultural, food, and water nanotechnologies for the poor

(Nanowerk News) Building on its past nanotechnology work, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) recently released the discussion paper "Agricultural, food, and water nanotechnologies for the poor: Opportunities, constraints, and role of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research" (pdf).
There are a number of potential opportunities associated with agricultural, food, and water nanotechnology for the poor, but to achieve such opportunities a number of challenges need to be overcome. This paper first provides a rapid assessment of key technologies that could have a large impact on the poor via increased agricultural productivity, improved food and water safety, and nutrition. Second, it reviews some of the main challenges to their deployment and adoption by the poor. It concludes with a discussion of the potential role of the CGIAR in facilitating the poor's access to beneficial nanotechnologies.
Background
About three-fourths of the poor in developing countries, including the poorest of the poor, live in rural areas, and most depend on agriculture for their livelihood. In this context, agriculture is widely viewed as a strategic area to reduce poverty and foster development. While agricultural and rural development may not tackle all poverty, it is a necessary means to reduce poverty, especially in developing countries. Agricultural development is also a key to reducing hunger and malnutrition in a world where an estimated one billion people are malnourished or food insecure. Links between persistent poverty and hunger are well known. While insufficient income most often leads to lower access to safe food and water, hunger and malnutrition reduce the physical and intellectual capacity of individuals, thereby increasing their likelihood to become or remain poor.
A comprehensive review of past research on agricultural development has identified effective pathways and tools to increase food security and reduce poverty. Among those, increasing the competitiveness of agriculture producers and improving market access are direct means to increase the welfare of the poor. Both producing more and connecting farmers to markets can help the rural poor increase their income and their access to food and other services. These two factors can also contribute to increasing the resilience of the poor to external shocks that can have a significant and lasting effect on their livelihoods.
Food safety is also a fundamental component of food security that can have an immediate impact on the poor. According to the Rome declaration at the 1996 World Food Summit, "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". Food safety and security are intrinsically linked with the safety and availability of water, a crucial input into production of food, both pre- and postharvest. Moreover, food and water safety affect the livelihoods of poor producers and consumers through health and market access.
As shown in the past, science and technology have a significant and necessary role to play in these areas. Whether by increasing productivity of fields, improving food and water quality, or helping to improve market access, new technologies can enable faster advancements in these directions and provide high returns to investments. Although there are debates on the tradeoff between investing in the development and diffusion of well-known past technologies versus that of new and potentially revolutionary technologies, several examples show that both of these strategies may be beneficial and are sometimes complementary. In some cases, technological advances driven by demand, like mobile phones, can have an enormous impact and even replace previous technologies (such as land-based telephones) before their complete diffusion. In other cases, like agricultural biotechnology, continued investment in existing practices (conventional breeding techniques) is necessary to move forward and have an impact on the ground. The question for public authorities is how to approach the prioritization of research and development efforts with limited budgets and scientific capacity.
Advances in nanoscale sciences may present a new opportunity to help address these issues and improve the livelihood of the poor. Nanotechnology is research and development that involves measuring and manipulating matter at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels at scales measured in approximately 1 to 100 nanometer (nm) in at least one dimension. At this scale, the physical, chemical, and biological properties of materials may be fundamentally different from their corresponding bulk materials. Materials at such small scales often exhibit different electrical, magnetic, and optical properties than their bulk material counterparts, leading to the development of potentially revolutionary technologies in all industries; but they may also create potential new risks. Because nanoscale science and engineering are still at their early stages, it is difficult to gauge the future importance of nanotech applications; but most observers in the nanotechnology field believe that they are bound to have a gigantic effect, altering technologies used in all types of industries, provided their risks can be managed.
If most nanotech investment and technologies are in other industries, then investments in agricultural and food nanotechnologies are increasingly important. Although no precise figure is available, a largely cited 2006 consultant report estimated that agricultural and food nanotechnologies would represent about $20 billion of investment in 2010. The reported advantages of nanotech applications in food range from improved food quality and safety to reduced agricultural inputs and improved processing and nutrition. Current applications are mostly coming from food manufacturing industries in developed countries and may not all have direct impact on agricultural development. Packaging materials for produce and processed products appear to occupy a large share of currently available applications.
Still, research advancements provide glimpses of potential applications with clear impact on agricultural, food, and water safety that could have a significant impact on rural populations in developing countries. A consultation of international experts in nanotechnology and development in 2005 identified applications to enhance agricultural productivity and food processing and storage among the 10 top areas where nanotechnology has a high potential for development. Several developing countries already believe in the potential of nanotechnology. For instance, India has included agricultural productivity as one of its main focuses for public research in nanotechnology; Iran launched a 35-lab research program on nanofood applications in 2005.
At the same time, agricultural and food nanotechnologies, and especially those that could lead to reduced poverty or food insecurity, are bound to face many challenges before being commercialized and used by rural poor. As with other new technologies, all steps in the process may need to overcome constraints—from investment and research and development to regulatory approval, commercial release, distribution, access, availability, adoption, and proper use by users. But there are also specific issues with nanotechnology, such as the involvement of public research, the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs), the management of safety and environmental risks in the presence of wide uncertainties, and the indirect effects on exports and foreign market access that could be positive or negative. Whether nanotechnologies succeed in helping the poor will largely depend on whether public research institutions, technology developers, national governments, and international donors are able to address these multiple challenges in the coming years.
In this paper, the authors analyze the potential opportunities and challenges of using nanotech applications in food and agriculture in developing countries. They use secondary data from the literature on agriculture and food nanotechnology and combine it with policy lessons from our their research on past and current agricultural, food, and water technology deployment in developing countries. Several papers have reviewed agricultural and food nanotechnologies in a developed-country context, and others have analyzed the potential of all applications in developing economies; but only a few publications have looked at agricultural and food nanotech in a developing-country context. The IFPRI report complements these efforts by analyzing the potential benefits of selected new and upcoming technologies and by assessing the potential policy and economic barriers to their adoption and use by the poor.
Source: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
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