April 16, 2024

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Dr Sukri

Engineering in agriculture: Sustainable food security for community impact

When talking about engineering, most people often imagine a giant offshore oil refinery, an AI robot powered by advanced computational software, and even a horsepower engine powering a TESLA electric car! Little did they know that engineering could also be impactful in the agricultural sector. As we celebrate World Engineering Day this March, this is a good opportunity to shed some light on the underdog applications of engineering and open everyone’s eyes to how impactful it is, especially at a time when food security is under threat, even here in Malaysia. As advanced and promising as it is in another field, engineering is also an important solution in agriculture! In this article, you will get an insight into current innovative technological solutions that are shaping a new practise in agriculture with the aim of sustainability and ensuring access to food not only for today but also for future generations.

First, imagine a world where a plant’s water supply, every drench of fertiliser to the soil and every application of pesticide to the leaves is applied with precision and in the right amount for each tree to maximise crop yield while minimising environmental impact. This is a promising advantage of precision agriculture, equipped with innovative technologies such as GPS, drones and analytical data that can benefit farmers in optimising their resources, achieving their goals, improving their productivity and reducing their environmental footprint. In short, it’s about doing more with less while protecting the planet.

Thanks to the brilliant minds of pioneering engineers, renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, turbines and bioenergy systems are increasingly being used on farms worldwide. Farmers are harnessing the potential of the sun’s rays, wind energy and even crop waste to power their farms sustainably. In Egypt, which consists of 96% desert land, an irrigation system powered by solar energy can provide clean and affordable energy for crop irrigation, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and minimising carbon emissions. (Note: In Malaysia, sunlight is available all year round, and we even have a special tax credit for businesses that utilise this renewable energy!) By using technology in agriculture, we can utilise the free resources that nature provides us to increase our resources while living in harmony with the environment.

Next, multidisciplinary integration with other disciplines is an alternative for engineers to offer solutions that go beyond their area of expertise and take into account the perspectives of others. Surprisingly, this aspect is still unknown to many. For example, to achieve resilient crops, engineers are working with biotechnologists to unlock nature’s secret by incorporating the CRISPR/Cas9 genome, which genetically modifies plants to cope with drought, resist pests and improve nutrient uptake. By genetically altering crops to resist drought, repel pests and improve nutrient uptake, we can ensure a consistent food supply, even in the face of climate variability and pest infestation.

Now, picture this. Microscopic-sized fungicide translocates within an enclosed tree trunk system which can target protection for your crops from inside, resulting in efficient of combating pests and diseases with surgical precision. That’s the power of nanotechnology in agriculture. It is a recent cutting-edge approach that has the potential to limit the use of chemicals in plantations. By synthesising fungicidal agents in the nano-sized range (1-100 nm), engineers are revolutionising disease management. Encapsulating fungicidal active ingredients in nanoparticles not only offers advantages in terms of precise delivery and controlled release but also ensures that minimal chemical residues remain in the fruit so that people can consume it without being exposed to the health effects of excessive chemicals. This targeted approach could also reduce the need for broad-spectrum fungicides, promote ecological balance and reduce the risk of pesticide resistance in the crop. By integrating nanotechnology into agricultural practices, farmers can mitigate the negative effects of excessive chemical pesticides while protecting crop health. Nanotechnology is a key enabler of sustainable practises while reducing environmental impact and ensuring effective control in the context of integrated pest management, which is a win-win for farmers.

All engineering solutions for agriculture mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more to be discovered. Engineering approaches in agriculture are in line with the objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially Goal 2: Zero Hunger. These engineering innovations promote resource efficiency, increase agricultural productivity and reduce environmental impacts, which can help ensure that all people have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. By promoting sustainable agricultural practices, technology also plays a crucial role in achieving Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. It helps to promote sustainable patterns of food production and consumption, thereby reducing waste and environmental degradation.

To summarise, engineering innovations play a crucial role in promoting agricultural sustainability and global food security. Through the use of precision agriculture, smart irrigation systems, the integration of renewable energy, biotechnological advances, nanotechnology and other technical aspects, we can cultivate a resilient and sustainable food system. This system can meet the needs of a growing population while safeguarding our planet’s resources for future generations. Engineering innovations are indispensable for ensuring a sustainable future for agriculture and global food security.

So, while the towering structures and high-tech gadgets capture our imagination, let’s not forget the transformative role technology plays in addressing some of the most pressing challenges in agriculture and food security!

 

Dr. Mohamad Sukri Mohamad Yusof is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Chemical and Energy Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. As a member of the Advanced Material and Separation Technologies research group, he smoothly combines academic knowledge with his previous experience as a Senior R&D Manager. Dr. Sukri specializes in nano-fungicide materials for the treatment of oil palm plant diseases, proving his dedication to novel agricultural solutions. With a track record of directing fungicide pre-registration processes and guiding industrial research initiatives, he is an excellent communicator and collaborator, cultivating good ties with industry, academia, and government agencies. He makes major contributions to UTM’s research landscape, motivated by results and a love for agricultural innovation.

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