farmer

Nanosensors Benefit Small Farmers and Reduce Pollution

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute rivers, oceans, air, and soil. Yet small farmers rely on them to produce food. Researchers from Singapore are working on ways to improve the efficiency of these tools and reduce pollution at the same time. 

Disruptive technology for a more sustainable agriculture

In an age when sustainability is becoming a major concern, traditional agriculture faces a dilemma between preserving resources and meeting the increasing demand for food. This is where innovative technology comes into play. DiSTAP (Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision), an interdisciplinary research group in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, recently developed the world’s first nanosensor that can perform rapid testing on plant hormones. 

Synthetic auxins (plant hormones) such as 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) are widely used as herbicides in the agriculture industry. They are also used as plant regulator sprays to prevent premature flowering and fruit dropping. However, they are not safe for human health at higher concentrations, and their residue on plants should be monitored carefully. So far, there are no non-invasive and efficient ways to monitor these chemicals. A DiSTAP research team has now developed nanosensors to monitor the chemicals in real time. 

Will the nanosensors benefit farmers as well as the environment and consumers? Supertrends interviewed DiSTAP team members Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, research scientist, and Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh, scientific director and principal investigator, to find out more about this breakthrough discovery.

Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang & Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh – Supertrends experts and researchers at DiSTAP

A precision agriculture tool

Supertrends: The sensors have been tested in the lab and in greenhouses to monitor synthetic auxin levels in plants. Does that mean the sensors will also work in real farms?

DiSTAP: As advanced analytical tools, the sensors could be used commercially in the context of precision agriculture as they are able to inform the farmers of the optimal amount of plant regulators required for their specific crops. Furthermore, as the output is available in real time, farmers can adjust and calibrate the amount of plant regulators to suit the growth needs of the crops at every stage of their development.

DiSTAP nanosensor and camera instrument setup

Economic and social benefits

Supertrends: How will farmers and consumers benefit from using the sensors?

DiSTAP: These novel sensing tools help farmers economically by preventing wasteful and ineffective deployment of herbicides, thereby improving cost efficiencies in herbicide usage.

There is also a mounting body of scientific evidence proving that the synthetic auxin herbicide poses a hazard to both human health and the environment. Given its widespread usage in agriculture, it is frequently detected in water from agricultural runoffs. Hence, besides the economic benefits to farmers, there are also health and environmental benefits that could be reaped from these nanosensors because the nanosensors allow for precise calibration of herbicide dosage in order to minimize usage. 

Challenges and future development

Supertrends: What are the major challenges in making the sensors into practical products?

DiSTAP: The environment is complex and changing constantly in the open fields. We are using a sentinel plant model to evaluate the technological robustness of our nanosensors under varying conditions of weather, plant development stage, soil types, etc. It may take one to two years for our nanosensor tools to be available on the market. 

For future development, we are looking into integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms into the nanosensor imaging platforms to simplify the data and make the information more useful to farmers. 

Do you want to know more about supertrends in agritech? Keep an eye on our page of free publications for some awesome content on this topic coming soon.

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Jiqing Hansen

Having worked passionately for 15+ years in Medicine, I felt that I yearned to do something a little bit different, something that satisfies my curiosity and creativity, maybe something that helps to inform me and others what our world will look like in the future. That's when I took on the challenge of being the editor & expert relationship manager at Supertrends. I love the fact that I can still be in touch with my academic background when I am trying to understand and reach out to the experts in the most exciting fields. I also love the diverse and enthusiastic team at Supertrends. The best of all, I get to have a peek into the future, and I am at the position of helping many others to get the opportunity to look into the future.

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