Surprisingly, the Council of Canadian Academies’ (CCA) Water and Agriculture in Canada: Towards Sustainable Management of Water Resources assessment (published Feb. 2013) had very little to with regard to how emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology are having and will have an impact on water and agriculture. Here’s the bit on synthetic biology,
Synthetic biology is defined as the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes (RAE, 2009). It is an emerging technology that is expected to have wide-ranging implications for agriculture in the future (RAE, 2009). The agricultural technology sector anticipates that synthetic biology will lead to greater productivity, profitability, and sustainability by increasing, for example: crop water productivity; nitrogen use efficiency; yields; pest, disease, and drought resistance; and the quality, quantity, and processing characteristics of agricultural products Dunbar, 2011). However, as with current methods of transgenic manipulation, concerns relating to the safety and health impacts of synthetic biology will need to be responsibly and carefully addressed (RAE, 2009). (print version pp. 134-5)
Surely they could have found a more recent reference than 2009. I don’t disagree with the overall assessment of synthetic biology but I think they were a bit miserly to confine themselves to a single paragraph.
As for nanotechnologies,
Nanotechnology applications are being developed for different agricultural uses including: the detection of pathogenic and parasitic organisms; sensing of environmental conditions and properties (such as humidity, soil moisture, and soil and groundwater contaminants); the controlled release of fertilizers and pesticides; improved water retention in soils and uptake by plants; drug delivery and improved nutrient utilization in livestock; degradation of organic contaminants; and water treatment (Kabiri et al., 2011; Knauer & Bucheli, 2009; Manimegalai et al., 2011; Thornton, 2010). Wireless nanosensors, for example, can be used in combination
with remote sensing and precision irrigation systems to greatly enhance WUE.
Nanoscale technologies for fertilizer and pesticide application can greatly reduce runoff and water contamination. Most nanotechnologies are still in their infancy, and associated risks and benefits must be carefully evaluated. Nonetheless, they represent a promising approach towards greater improvements in WUE (OECD, 2010). However, the potential for negative impacts of nanotechnologies on the environment and health needs to be researched (Knauer & Bucheli, 2009) and their application supported by risk assessment. (pp. 144-5; print version)
Not much attention paid to nanotechnology either, although they did manage to find some more recent references. I wonder why they didn’t organize the information about synthetic biology and nanotechnology in a section on emerging technologies and discuss some of the implications and research at more length. Certainly there’s a lot of interest and concern regarding nanotechnology impacts on agriculture and water.
I have two more items for this posting (to prove my point at least in part), one is about nanomaterials and fertilizer and the other one is about two UN organizations and their nanotechnology and water purification initiative.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has released a report about nanomaterials in soil fertilizers according to an April 26, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Nanomaterials added to soil via fertilizers and treated sewage waste used to fertilize fields could threaten soil health necessary to keep land productive, says a new report released today by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Peer-reviewed scientific research also indicates possible negative impacts of nano-fertilizers on public health and the food supply.
IATP’s report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain? (pdf), draws attention to the delicate soil food chain, including microbes and microfauna, that enable plant growth and produce new soil. Laboratory experiments have indicated that sub-molecular nanoparticles could damage beneficial soil microbes and the digestive systems of earthworms, essential engineers in maintaining soil health.
The IATP April 24, 2013 news release, which originated the news item,
Nanomaterials are advertised as a component of market-available fertilizers—designed to increase the effectiveness of fertilizers by making them the same size as plant and root pores—but because nanotechnology is an unregulated global industry, there is no pre-market safety assessment. Several researchers assume that nanomaterials are increasingly present in biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) used as fertilizer on about 60 percent of U.S. agricultural land. [emphasis mine]
“In light of published research, the Obama administration should institute an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids from sewage treatment plants near nanomaterial fabrication facilities. A moratorium would give researchers time to determine whether nanomaterials in soil can be made safe and to research alternatives to building soil heath, rather than depending on fertilization with biosolids.” says IATP’s Dr. Steve Suppan.
Over time, the report explains, nanomaterials in these agricultural inputs can accumulate and harm soil health. More research is urgently needed to adequately understand possible long-term impacts of nanotechnology.
“As agri-nanotechnology rapidly enters the market, can soil health and everything that depends on it can be sustained without regulation?” asks Suppan. “That’s the question regulators, researchers and anyone involved in our food system should be asking themselves.”
The report also details risks specific to farmers and farmworkers applying dried biosolids that incorporate nanomaterials, including inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and other toxicological impacts.
With no regulatory system in place—in the U.S. or elsewhere—for producing, and selling nano-fertilizers, IATP’s report concludes by asking for governments to require robust technology assessments involving biological engineers, soil scientists, public health professionals, farmers and concerned citizens before allowing indiscriminate application by industry.
It seems to me IATP could have cited some facts, rather than assumptions, in the news release, and perhaps even referenced a study or two relative to their claim of risks “specific to farmers and farmworkers applying dried biosolids that incorporate nanomaterials, including inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and other toxicological impacts.” I have looked at the report briefly and there is some interesting and valuable research in there although I haven’t looked closely enough to see if any of it supports the claims in their news release. I suspect not since they usually trumpet those findings and numbers loudly.
As for the two UN agencies and their water purification and nanotechnology initiative, this May 31, 2013 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Culture Organization) news release explains,
Providing access to clean water is one of the most pressing challenges in developing countries. Lack of access to safe drinking water impacts the lives and well-being of millions of people, whereas non-existent, or inadequate, wastewater treatment is threatening the quality of water resources, as well as ecosystems that we depend on. Conventional water purification and wastewater treatment technologies often require large infrastructure, high initial capital investment, and considerable operating costs associated with the use of energy and chemicals.
What is the potential that nanotechnology holds to address these water problems? What nanotechnologies offer the most immediate promise in water purification and wastewater treatment? Which areas of water use are in the largest need of a technological upgrade and innovation?
These were the main questions raised by a joint UNESCO-UNIDO session on “Nanotechnology Applications in Water Purification and Wastewater Treatment”, which was the kick-off event of cooperation between UNESCO and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which the two organizations have recently embarked on in the area of nanotechnology for clean water in developing countries.
Under this cooperation, the two organizations will work together on a number of joint activities to explore the potential of nanotechnology in water purification and wastewater treatment, as an emerging technology that may provide sustainable and innovative solutions to reach the Millennium Development Goals on safe drinking water and basic sanitation, as well as to contribute towards the post-2015 development agenda and future Sustainable Development Goals. Complementing ongoing activities of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme aimed at promoting water sciences, the cooperation with the Investment and Technology Unit of UNIDO brings a perspective on how advances in emerging technological developments, such as those in nanotechnology, can be utilized to enhance existing solutions to water problems and make a paradigm shift in water treatment systems, as industrial applications of nanotechnology are expanding rapidly.
Experts participating in the session presented research findings on promising nanotechnology applications in water such as improved membrane technologies, removal of bacteria and other pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and trace contaminants, water quality monitoring, remediation of polluted water systems, greater wastewater reuse, desalinization, as well as less-water intensive agriculture. The session did not focus on the optimistic technological aspect alone. Discussions touched upon also on how to draw the line between opportunities and challenges that limit nanotechnology applications in water.
The session emphasized the need for a balanced approach to nanotechnology applications in water and underlined the risks associated with toxicology and wider impacts on human health and the environment as of importance for further deliberations given that water is a basic human need and integral to health and well-being. Another issue of consideration was ethical issues of nanotechnology applications in water that arise from uncertainties related to environmental and health risks. Participants of the session also shared experiences on community engagement in making nanotechnologies relevant to local needs by presenting an example of using nanotechnology to provide clean water in a school in a developing country village.
Given these recent doings with IATP and UNIDO/UNESCO, I was truly surprised at how little attention the CCA paid to nanotechnologies and, by extension, the other emerging technologies.