One of the most challenging anxieties of the 21st century is safeguarding food security for the world’s exponentially growing population, as stipulated by goal 2 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to projections, the global food demand is expected to rise between 60 to 98% by 2050, with a population of more than 9 billion.
Under this irreversible pressure, demand for cereals is projected to reach 3 billion tonnes by 2050. It is worth noting that in sub-Saharan Africa, increased use of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK)
fertilizers and chemical pesticides is associated with meeting SDGs to improve agricultural productivity and end malnutrition and hunger.
However, the concept of people, planet and prosperity is well-documented, particularly in sustainable development literature. It emphasises the importance of balancing activities, particularly those for financial gain, with respect for our planet and the well-being of future generations.
Now, a team of seven postgraduate students and three academic staff at the NWU are using this approach, coupled with nanotechnology, to secure future food supply while protecting our environment.
“Food security represents the foundation for population health, economy and well-being, yet micronutrient scarcity in soils frequently lessens crop productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. The use of conventional fertilisers and pesticides has regularly been argued to affect the quality of freshwater and soil,” explains Prof Lebo Seru, associate professor and director of the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences at the NWU.
As study leader, Prof Seru and colleagues within the Faculty of Agricultural and Natural Sciences are aware that unsustainable use of agrochemicals has the potential to negatively affect freshwater habitats and soil quality and, in turn, the ability to sustainably produce food.
“The nano-formulation of fertilisers/pesticides is a valuable strategy that can contribute to reforming the agricultural sector and provide solutions for eventual concerns surrounding sustainable development and climate change,” says Prof Seru.
According to her, this state-of-the-art nanotechnology process consists of manipulating materials at nanoscale, affording “smart” agricultural inputs with less toxic environmental effects.
Plant extracts as “green” precursors to develop less toxic agro-inputs
The intention of this research is to take a sustainable approach to developing less toxic agricultural inputs by integrating plant extracts for synthesising nanoscale nutrients and pest management. To ensure a slow release of active ingredients, these phytochemicals and their micronutrient derivatives were loaded in biopolymeric nanocarriers.
Improving maize productivity
A key finding was that the treatment of maize seeds in solutions of nano-encapsulated nutrients led to improved physiological features such as improved seed germination, growth and reproduction; tolerance to salt, osmotic and oxidative stress; and enhanced photosynthetic, respiratory and transpiratory rates. “The nano-encapsulated botanical pesticides also demonstrated increased stability and effectiveness against maize weevil,” says an excited Prof Seru.
Sowing the seeds of sustainability
According to Prof Seru, the intention is to ensure that the benefits to be accrued by this research “do not gather dust”.
“A series of meetings are being initiated to obtain support from strategic stakeholders (small to large scale) and emerging farmers on potential areas of collaboration for upscaling. In addition, community engagement activities are being scheduled to highlight the need for a balance between economic productivity and environmental protection.”