Even as biotechnology has begun displaying its prowess by facilitating the development of tailor-made products with specified genes, its complementary, albeit yet evolving, science of nanotechnology seems all set to further augment this competence.
By making it far easier to exploit the desirable traits of biological molecules and cell processes, nanotechnology can accomplish even those goals which are difficult to achieve via other means.
Besides, nanotechnology can play a great role in plant and animal genomics, making DNA sequencing a much quicker job than it is today.
However, while the utility of nanotechnology in health, electronics and several other biological and industrial sectors is already well appreciated, its potential for transforming agriculture is generally not so well-known.
The truth is that nanotechnology can enhance the agriculture sector's capability to sustain food security even while also meeting the demands for fibre, fuel and other farm products.
Significantly, while India, being a late starter, missed out substantially on gainful exploitation of biotechnology for agriculture and related fields, farm scientists do not want the same to happen in nanotechnology.
Some agricultural universities and research institutions have already made a beginning in teaching and research on nanotechnology.
A powerful plea for developing a strong R&D base in nanotechnology has been made by a sub-group set up by the Planning Commission for mooting suggestions for the 'adoption and generation of relevant technologies and their dissemination to farmers'.
Headed by Indian Council of Agricultural Research director-general Mangala Rai, this group has put together an elaborate model for a nanotechnology initiative under the national agricultural research system with a National Institute of Nanotechnology in Agriculture as its hub.
The institute is proposed to have linkages/cross-linkages with other R&D bodies in relevant disciplines as well as with the private sector.
"Considering the rapid progress in nanotechnology R&D being made in advanced countries like the USA and Japan, it is imperative that India makes strategic investment in this frontier area of science and technology in the 11th plan so that the benefits can be reaped in the foreseeable future," the sub-group has stated in its report.
Nanotechnologies have huge scope in basic and strategic research in genomics, besides in areas like the efficient use of water, plant nutrients and plant protection chemicals and post-harvest operations, it added.
Indeed, the unique aspect of nanotechnology is that, like homeopathy, it seeks to gainfully tap some of the extraordinary properties that the minutest of the minute parts of the atom or cell tend to possess and which normally happen to be relatively far more potent than the properties of the atom or cell as a whole.
It can, thus, be used to develop diagnostic kits that can detect the exact causes of the disease and their cure or prevention through drugs and vaccines.
In vaccine administration, too, nano-particles can help dispense the precise amount of the vaccine's active ingredient at the specific location for speedy action.
It can, thus, help combat some dreaded plant and animal diseases, including the foot-and-mouth disease which the country is striving to eradicate.
From the farmers' viewpoint, nanotechnology can bring down production costs through precise and more efficient use of inputs. Nano-sensors and nano-based smart delivery systems can, for instance, ensure the regulated delivery of water and fertiliser nutrients to the plants, eliminating wastes.
In the case of processed foods and other value-added farm products, nanotechnology can be utilised in preparing nano-bar codes, preserving the identity of the products and monitoring the quality of goods.
Considering the great possibilities offered by nanotechnology, as also the interdisciplinary nature of this science requiring close collaboration among biologists, pathologists, physical scientists, chemists and engineers, the sub-group has mooted the establishment of a national consortium on nanotechnology R&D.
This consortium is stipulated to involve, besides the proposed NINA, several other Indian institutions which are actively engaged in nanotechnology R&D. Prominent among them include the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, the National Physical Laboratory, universities like Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Hamdard, various agricultural and other universities, and apex scientific and research bodies.
However, since R&D on nanotechnology is a cost-intensive activity, the government needs to be liberal in funding the development of such a network. Once the fruits of this research become potentially exploitable, the private sector can be expected to come forward in investing in their commercialisation.