More than 12.5 percent of the world’s population or around 868 million people are chronically undernourished, according to the UN. While poverty, food systems, and access education undoubtedly contribute to these numbers, other significant factors continue to be food security and food production.
Joining in the fight to combat malnutrition is Carleton University researcher Maria DeRosa, with a most unusual weapon.
Fertilizers can play an important role in advancing greater yields and addressing malnutrition – that is, if they’ve been designed to be more efficient, more cost-effective, and more environmentally friendly.
“When farmers fertilize their fields, most of the fertilizer doesn’t end up in the crop,” says DeRosa. “Seventy percent can get washed away.” That’s inefficient and wasteful.
So DeRosa researched and created smart materials that can recognize and release nutrients based on signals from their environment. The smart materials provide a coating for each capsule loaded with fertilizer and plant nutrients.
After partnering with Dr. Carlos Monreal at Agriculture Canada, DeRosa and her team learned the identity of some key signals coming from crops. These signals will allow DeRosa to program the coating of the fertilizer capsules to release food only when plants need it.
The smart capsules will protect the fertilizer from harsh environments, preventing the nutrients from getting washed away or damaged by the cold, while it releases nutrients over time.
“With a projection of nine billion people in the world by 2050, we will need to find ways to feed them all. Making fertilizers more efficient works toward that goal,” she says.
Each capsule is also biodegradable, making it harmless to the environment.
The techniques DeRosa uses to create her smart fertilizer capsules may also find application far beyond the world of agriculture. Chemotherapy drugs, for instance, could be much more targetted about where and when they deploy, possibly diminishing the devastating side effects of the treatment.
“If we can improve the method of delivery, we can get more out of our fertilizers or drugs – by saving time, money, and ultimately people’s lives,” DeRosa says.