A team of researchers has completed a wide-ranging comparison of nanofertilizers against their traditional counterparts and have found a massive gap in our understanding of the environmental, soil, and even economic impact this new industry has created.

The study, which has now been published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, is called ‘A Critical Evaluation of Nanopesticides and Nanofertilizers Against their Conventional Analogues’, and was based on the researchers analysis and comparison of 78 academic papers on nanotechnology in agriculture.

Ultimately, while the work does find that nanofertilizer has a, “… median gain in efficacy relative to conventional products of about 20–30%.” The research concluded that, “Many studies lacked nano-specific quality assurance and adequate controls.” Adding that, “Currently, there is no comprehensive study in the literature that evaluates efficacy and environmental impact of nanoagrochemicals under field conditions. This is a crucial knowledge gap and more work will thus be necessary for a sound evaluation of the benefits and new risks that nanoagrochemicals represent relative to existing products.”

The study supports earlier research conducted by Christian Dimkpa Ph.D. and Dr P.S. Bindraban of the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC). Their study, which was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, found that, “… [while] nanotechnology can both enhance crop productivity and reduce nutrient losses, large-scale industrial production of nanofertilizers has yet to be realized.” Noting an absence of research into many areas of the nanofertilizer industry including, “… the notion of toxicity associated with nano-scale materials; scant nanofertilizer research with key crop nutrients; inadequacy of soil- or field-based studies with nanofertilizers; type of nanomaterials to produce as fertilizers; how to efficiently and effectively apply nanofertilizers at the field-scale; and the economics of nanofertilizers.”

A further report by Katerina Kramer, science correspondent for the Royal Chemistry Society’s publication Chemistry World, paints a similarly dark picture of the nanofertilizer sector. Observing that, “Few studies [on nanofertilizer] fully characterise the size and shape of their nanomaterials. Experiments also frequently fail to compare the nanoparticle formulations to both commercial versions of the same compound and the active ingredient on its own. Moreover, most studies are done in laboratories – an environment far removed from the field. This also means there have been few studies assessing the nanomaterials’ fate and environmental impact.”

Dr U.S Awasthi, Managing Director, IFFCO, at the launch of a new nanofertilizer in March 2019. Stating that just two grammes of nano fertilizer will work equal to as much as 100 kg urea

Given the massive benefits and drawbacks that conventional fertilizer use has on crop yields, soil health, and the environment, it is surprising to discover how little is known about nanofertilizer and how much of the research that has been done has ‘severe short-comings’.

The impact of both neonicotinoid use on bee populations, or the use of Round Up pesticides on the health of farm workers and wildlife populations should act as a warning to the agrichemical industry of the dangers of insufficient research.

As an editorial in the journal Nature highlights, “It is true that broadly speaking the small size and high surface-area-to-volume ratio in nanoparticles can be beneficial. But using this justification without properly understanding the mechanisms of interaction between nanoparticles and crops, may in the long run undermine the potential of nanotechnology in agriculture, as has perhaps already happened in other fields.”

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