Weather-weather lang ’yan: How nanoparticles can boost food supply despite climate change

in Photo: Photograph of butterhead lettuce harvested after one month in a normal greenhouse

In one of my previous columns (https://businessmirror.com.ph/old-and-new-technologies-support-climate-smart-agriculture), I discussed how old and new technologies are promoting climate-smart agriculture (CSA). This farming system, which is espoused by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is not a novel concept as traditional farming practices like crop rotation and rainwater harvesting can be considered climate-smart, which, in this case, can refer to any practice and technology that can cut emissions while simultaneously raising yields and building farmers’ resilience.

Farmers are long used to changing weather patterns and have since adjusted their life and livelihood to cater to these changes. Who else but a farmer (and, of course, an influence peddler) can understand the many layers of meaning encapsulated in that catchphrase “weather-weather lang ’yan”?  But climate change is a relatively new phenomenon and it has brought extreme weather events such as a more severe dry spell, stronger typhoons and heavy flooding that don’t only hurt farmers but all of us who have to live with declining food production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said crop yields will decline by as much as 25 percent by 2050 owing to climate change. The FAO said extreme weather events can also cause more frequent and intense plant pest and disease outbreaks, as was the case during the desert locust outbreaks in Northwest Africa and in Yemen in late-2015 and early-2016. It also doesn’t help that the agriculture sector itself is a major carbon emitter, accounting for at least 20 percent of total greenhouse-gas emissions.

Photograph of butterhead lettuce harvested after one month in a greenhouse with anti-thermal coating

This is why it’s important too to explore novel technologies that have been developed in recent years to address these new challenges.  As Matthew Tan, co-chairman of the Apec Partnership on Food Security, said in my recent interview with him, farmers need to learn to embrace new technology to make agriculture sustainable. Tan, who also serves as adjunct associate professor of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), cited two climate-farming technologies that the Singapore-based university has developed and were launched in 2016: anti-thermal coating and a nano-gel that will help soil absorb more water.

Of the two, Tan told me that it’s the anti-thermal coating which is now commercially available and has gained interest not only in Singapore but in other countries like Hong Kong and Japan. Applying anti-thermal coating on a greenhouse’s roof can block about 90 percent of the heat and still allow light to pass through and help plants to grow and thrive.

This coating is a product of a research project that started in 2013 and is in response to the university’s staff request to make the school atrium cooler. But the research team, which is composed of scientists and researchers of NTU’s Energy Research Institute and the School of Materials Science and Engineering, didn’t only end up with a paint additive that could cool the university atrium but also has the potential to help farms adapt to a warmer temperature brought by climate change.

“If these changes in temperature are expected to worsen over the next 30 years, then understanding the potential impacts on the plant growth and development, as well as finding ways to overcome this issue, will help develop adaptation strategies to offset these impacts,” NTU senior scientist Dr. Goh Chin Foo said in an e-mail interview with the BusinessMirror.

Goh, who led the team that developed the anti-thermal coating, said the coating is based on nanoparticles that can be mixed with any paint. The final coating, when applied to any roof, could control the amount of light that can be transmitted or reflected through the greenhouse’s roof.  The team validated its findings by applying the coating on the roof of a greenhouse owned by Oh Chin Huat hydrophonic farm in March 2017.

“Results showed that the solar reflective additive coated set blocked more than 20 percent of solar radiation energy and led to better growth of plants when compared to the uncoated one,” he said.  Goh showed me photos of butterhead lettuce to illustrate his point. After one month of raising butterhead lettuce in separate greenhouses, the NTU team learned that those grown in a greenhouse with anti-thermal coating are heavier, with 10 samples of lettuce weighing 98 grams, while those raised without the coating weighed 78.6 grams.

Another technology, this time developed by NTU together with the National Parks Board, is a nano-gel—a water-absorbent nano-molecule that has soil-conditioning capabilities. When one sprays the solution on the soil, the soil can become a mini-reservoir—it can lock in excess water and release it during a prolonged period of drought. The nano-gel is not yet commercially available but is now being tested in the plants being grown by the National Parks Board and at the greenhouse of the National Institute of Education.

Apart from NTU, several key research agencies and universities have been developing climate-smart farm technologies in respond to these challenges.

Not far from home is the Los Baños-based International Rice Research Institute.  Together with local partners, the IRRI has developed the alternate wetting and drying (AWD) technology that has been introduced to several countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Farmers using AWD alternately flood and dry their rice fields and can reduce a rice farm’s water consumption by 30 percent and methane emission by 50 percent.  The IRRI has also developed climate-ready rice varieties that can tolerate climate stresses like drought, heat, salinity and flooding.

At the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, scientists are developing a vaccine to purge cow stomachs of methanogens—the microbes that convert hydrogen into methane—and reduce the methane emitted by burping cows and ruminants. In India  nonprofit farm tech start-up Kheyti is developing a low-cost modular greenhouse that can reduce heat stress and boost crop yield.

But such technologies will only be effective in promoting climate-smart agriculture if they will be widely adopted by farmers, specifically the 500 million smallholders who account for more than 80 percent of the world’s farming communities. The FAO said most smallholders still have limited access to the innovations, technology, knowledge and information owing to a decline in public-sector extension services. But Tan said price might deter farmers from adopting new technology. But he’s confident that government subsidies and the fact that the cost of technology goes down in the future can help farmers use these new technologies.

A separate statement issued by the IRRI noted that, while these technologies are scalable, that does not necessarily mean that they propagate by themselves without further inputs. This is why the IRRI regularly conducts training sessions to promote the new technologies that the agency has developed. More important, any technology and practices will need to be customized to fit the specific needs of a local farming community in order for it to
be scalable.

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Turning Points 2018