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Engineering a More Sustainable Future for Farming

Featured Research in Nature Nanotechnology Investigates the Use of Engineered Nano-Materials in Agriculture

PITTSBURGH (Dec. 14, 2020) — Agriculture has long been the cornerstone of societies across the globe. However, the advancements that have allowed crop yields to keep up with a booming population, like pesticides and fertilizers, come with a slew of harmful side effects for the environment.

One solution that researchers are exploring is using materials at the nanoscale to replace agrochemicals and help the agricultural system sustainably meet the growing demand for food.

Leanne Gilbertson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, recently published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology that investigates and analyzes the potential use of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) in agricultural practices. The paper was featured on the cover of the journal’s September print edition.

“Without action to mitigate the environmental effects of our agriculture system, impacts like greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use are estimated to increase 50-90 percent by 2050,” says Gilbertson. “We can leverage the properties of nanoscale materials to develop solutions to achieve agricultural intensification, or the ability to produce more food with fewer resources.”

The team—made up of researchers from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Arizona State University—compare the performance, and environmental and economic trade-offs, of ENMs and conventional alternatives. 

In the current system, agrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides are relied upon for crop development, and farmers over-apply them to maximize crop yields. The researchers write that more than 50 percent of the nitrogen and 85 percent of the phosphorus applied as fertilizer to the crops are not actually utilized, and less than 10 percent of applied pesticides reach their intended target. Not only does this increase costs for farmers, but it also contributes to substantial contamination of the surrounding ecosystems and can harm both the environment and human health.=

ENM alternatives would not require over-application to work well: their targeted delivery makes them more effective while minimizing the risk of contaminating the surrounding soil. The researchers identify several opportunities to advance crop production while prioritizing sustainability.

The paper, “Guiding the Design Space For Nanotechnology to Advance Sustainable Crop Production,” (doi: 10.1038/s41565-020-0706-5) was authored by Leanne M. Gilbertson at Pitt; Leila Pourzahedi, Stephanie Laughton, Xiaoyu Gao and Gregory V. Lowry at CMU; Julie B. Zimmerman at Yale University; Thomas L. Theis at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Paul Westerhoff at Arizona State University.

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick