Dr. Valtencir Zucolotto
Full Professor at the University of Sao Paulo
Years of observing the development of the agricultural industry has made one thing clear, which is the fact that agriculture is highly receptive to and compatible with new technologies. In our view, it is only a matter of time before nanotechnology becomes widely used in agriculture, even though its application in other areas is currently more widespread.
Recently, we had the honor of speaking to Dr. Valtencir Zucolotto, Full Professor at the University of Sao Paulo. He is the founder and coordinator of the Nanomedicine and Nanotoxicology Group (GNano/IFSC/USP), and leads a team researching the development of state-of-the-art materials and technologies for the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology, with potential applications in the medical and agribusiness fields.
We interviewed Dr. Zucolotto and asked a series of questions about the application of nanotechnology in agriculture. He talked about how nanotechnology is being used in agriculture, what challenges are facing the sector, and the research his team is conducting.
We know from various sources that nanotechnology will play an important role in agriculture, enabling it to solve many challenges. But why are there so few current examples of the successful use of nanotechnology in agriculture?
Nanotechnology is considered the next industrial revolution, impacting virtually all sectors of the economy worldwide. Following the material transformation sector, which was probably the first industrial sector to benefit from the development of nanomaterials, its uses in healthcare and agriculture have been notable.
In medicine, the use of nanotech-based materials and devices are revolutionizing both therapy and diagnosis. In the last months, for example, we have witnessed the consolidation of a particular area of nanomedicine, with the development of the RNA-based anti-COVID-19 vaccines by the companies, Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna. In these vaccines, RNA is encapsulated within a nanoparticle, which allows the proper delivery of active materials in the body, ensuring their effectiveness. However, the rapid development of nanotech-based vaccines was due to the urgent needs imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated related studies, clinical trials and scale-up and commercialization, reaching a global scale.
In agriculture, on the other hand, a different scenario was observed, with relatively few nanotechnology-based solutions being adopted by the sector. In my opinion, the main reasons for the relatively timid adoption of nanotech in agriculture are the lack of specialist human resources and appropriate regulatory policies.
Concerning human resources, there are still relatively few initiatives aimed at training professionals in using nanotechnology in agriculture, with specific programs existing mainly at university level. The introduction of more specific subjects covering nanotechnology in agronomy and agricultural engineering courses is warranted. For now, outsourcing and partnership strategies between major companies and startups are crucial to minimizing the low availability of experts in the field, since they combine specific technical knowledge, as many startups are spin-offs from universities, with the business experience and market share of leading players.
Unfortunately, more complicated solutions are required to deal with the lack of regulatory policies, since such initiatives that do not only depend exclusively on the academics and productive sectors, but also on governmental and regulatory agencies. In this respect, an important initiative is underway in Brazil, which will be addressed below.
In general, what are the current examples of the successful application of nanotechnology in agriculture?
Nanotechnology has impacted all agribusiness sectors, with applications covering the entire productive chain, ranging from seed care, crop protection and genetic improvement to the post-harvest control and traceability of agricultural and livestock products.
The controlled delivery of active molecules for fertilization and crop protection using nanoengineered nanocapsules is currently the most representative application of nanobiotechnology in agribusiness. The latter strategy enables the controlled delivery of agrochemicals and biologicals with longer residence periods in plants and in the soil with enhanced efficacy and safety, since the same protective effects can be achieved using significantly lower amounts of active molecules.
Important applications covering post-harvest control and monitoring have also been reported, as in the case of fruit ripening nanosensors and intelligent packaging materials, which can combine storage condition monitoring, bactericidal control and sanitization.
Nanomaterials have also been used in the development of advanced sensing platforms for soil, water and agricultural pest monitoring. Furthermore, with the advent of biological controls and biopesticides, nanotechnology platforms, such as nanocapsules and nanocoatings, will become important tools for improving shelf-life and imparting stability to biological formulations.
Despite the several products already on the market, there is still a considerable margin for innovation in the sector, in which nanotechnology will act as a protagonist.
Image 1 Representative materials and areas impacted by nanotechnology in agribusiness.
Image credits: Dr. Valeria Cardoso, GNano/IFSC/USP.
Could you please introduce your nanotechnology research group? What are your main research areas? How can your research help the agricultural industry achieve further development? Can you share any success stories with us?
Our research group focuses on the development of state-of-the-art materials and technologies related to converging nanotechnology and biotechnology, through applications in the medical and agribusiness fields.
In the so-called nanomedicine area, several projects are underway related to the development of biosensors for use in point-of-care (POC) diagnostic kits for various diseases, including zika, dengue, tuberculosis and cancer. We have also developed nanoengineered nanocapsules and artificial cells for targeted drug delivery, which can be used in enhanced therapy against cancer and resistant tuberculosis.
It is worthwhile to mention that many of these nanotechnological sensing and delivery platforms can be modified or adapted for use in other areas, such as agriculture, which is why our group has developed several projects, in partnership with major multinationals companies in the agro-sector, aimed at creating on-demand nanotechnology-based solutions.
Examples include the design and synthesis of nanomaterials for crop protection, including the nanoencapsulation and controlled delivery of agrochemicals and the development of nanoformulations with enhanced performance, making defensive agrochemicals and nutrients compatible and enabling them to act in synergy, as well as the development of nanosensors for pest monitoring and control. We have also developed patented technologies for zoonosis detection, among others.
Image 2 Typical polymeric nanoparticles used for the encapsulation and delivery of agrochemicals.
Image credits: Dr. Bruna Moreira, GNano/IFSC/USP.
What are the regulatory and safety issues facing the research and commercialization of agricultural nanotechnology?
Regulation and safety are always important topics in terms of the proper use of novel technological platforms. Specific regulatory policies covering nanotechnologies are essential to the overall development, manufacture, commercialization, use and disposal of nanotech-based products.
In Brazil, Bill 880/2019 is currently being assessed by the national congress. Its approval will create the foundation for nanotech regulation, representing progress towards the full development of Brazilian nanotechnology-based industries.
Among the various regulatory initiatives underway around the world, we are noting the NANoREG project, a European platform aimed at developing regulatory policies based on scientific studies and experimentation, with a focus on nanoregulation and nanosafety. Brazil has actively participated in the NANoREG initiative, through the involvement of research groups invited by the Brazilian Science, Technology, and Innovation Ministry (MCTI), including our Nanomedicine and Nanotoxicology group, GNano, at the University of Sao Paulo. The implementation of clear and effective regulatory policies will benefit all sectors impacted by nanotechnology, including agribusiness.
What is Bill 880/2019 in Brazil? How could this bill encourage the development of agricultural nanotechnology in the country?
Bill 880/2019 aims to create the legal framework for nanotechnology in Brazil, including, among others, the National Nanosafety Program, in line with OECD guidelines and recommendations. It also covers scientific development, research, scientific and technological training and nanotechnological innovation in Brazil.
The idea is to encourage economic development in line with appropriate principles, such as environmental sustainability, responsibility and transparency, reducing risks to health and the environment, and involving the assessment and control of possible effects to workers’ health. It also represents a key step towards the proper use of nanotechnology by Brazilian companies, improving the quality of products and services with nanotechnology inputs, as well as increasing productivity and competitiveness in the international market.
Bill 880/2019 was approved by the Constitution and Justice Commission on 19th February, 2020, and it is now being assessed by the Science, Technology, Innovation, Communication and Informatics Commission.
What are your expectations for the future development of agricultural nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is already part of our lives and its impact on various economic sectors will be tremendous in the coming years, mainly due to the real possibility of increasing efficiency and safety while reducing production costs. Because the agricultural sector is highly receptive to technological innovations, we have high expectations for the sector. I have no doubt that nanobiotechnology will start a "revolution" in the agro-sector, comparable to or perhaps even more relevant than the current technological transformations introduced by IT innovations in the field, with the advent of so-called “digital farms.” Obviously, the best results will come through the convergence of these two great innovation platforms.
Some sectors that are expected to be highly impacted by nanotechnology, such as seed treatment, crop protection (through the controlled and intelligent delivery of agrochemicals, biologicals and nutrients), pest monitoring and intelligent nanosensors, as well as smart packaging production. We also envisage the use of nanotechnology in the production of animal feed with high added value, as well as in bioprocesses related to genetic improvement.
Despite the best expectations, we must be aware of the difficulties and obstacles and regulatory and safety issues, which are crucial. Therefore, the future of nanotechnology in agribusiness, the so-called “Nanoagro Revolution,” depends on the joint efforts of several players, including academics, the R&D departments of companies and regulatory agencies.
This article was initially published in AgroPages' '2021 Latin America Focus' magazine.