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Soil sensor will help farmers in the developing world grow cost-efficient crops

Professor Herbert Kronzucker (left) is the founder and director of the Canadian Centre for World Hunger Research at UTSC (Photo by Ken Jones)

A partnership between three University of Toronto groups – including one from U of T Scarborough – will develop new technology to help farmers in the developing world fertilize their fields more effectively thanks to a new grant.

The partnership, which includes the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN), the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and UTSC’s Canadian Centre for World Hunger Research (CCWHR), will develop a low-cost soil fertility sensor based on gold nanoparticles that can be used by rice farmers in the developing world. Support for the project came through the Dean’s Strategic Fund from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

“Quite often farmers in the developing world struggle to afford fertilizer, and when they can, it’s very difficult to figure out how much is actually needed by the crop,” says CCWHR Founder and Director Herbert Kronzucker.

While still early in development, the sensor will work by allowing farmers to test their soils using nanoparticle strips that are similar to pH strips in that it can produce colour reactions. The information will be fed into a mobile app that will then let farmers know if they need to use more or less of a specific nutrient found in fertilizers.

The ultimate goal is to not only reduce costs but also cut down on pollution from over-fertilization.

“Nitrogen contained in fertilizer is one of three main nutrients required for crops to grow but it also costs the most to produce, and, in a rice field, about 50 to 70 per cent of it doesn’t even reach the plant,” says Kronzucker.

The excess nitrogen negatively impacts water quality by contaminating nearby watersheds or leaching into ground water. It’s also a significant source of gases such as ammonia and nitrogen oxides, which are not only harmful to aquatic life but also a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Kronzucker, who just last year was named a U of T Distinguished Professor, says this new partnership aligns with the CCWHR’s mission of improving the productivity and sustainability of the world’s major crops, especially those in developing countries, and to address food security issues by using cutting-edge science and technology.    

This project is one of five under CGEN’s new Public Health Diagnostics Initiative aimed at addressing important public health and environmental challenges. The funds will run over three years, but the team hopes to attract attention from NGOs and corporate sponsors in the meantime.  


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