Agriculture is an environmentally costly technology. A growing population and adverse climate conditions increases the need to use fertilizers and pesticides. These however, tend to be very inefficient, resulting in potentially toxic substances being released into the environment in large amounts. Fertilizers and pesticides based on nanomaterials could provide an important solution to the problem. The principle is simple: because nanomaterials are so small, they can release the desired substance locally, thus reducing waste.

The interest in nano-enabled agriculture is growing rapidly. A fast analysis on SCOPUS shows that the number of publications in the field has risen almost tenfold in the last 10 years. Beyond reporting results based on performance, researchers are focusing more and more on understanding the mechanisms of interaction between the nanomaterials and crops, which provides interesting scientific insight and is essential for the successful development of the field. Indeed, providing insight into such interaction mechanisms has now become an essential ingredient for the editorial team at Nature Nanotechnology to consider a manuscript for publication and seek the advice of reviewers.

Although advances in science and applications are crucial for the development of nanotechnology, it is also essential to assess whether and how exactly the use of nanomaterials is going to provide advantages with respect to other approaches. The Analysis by Leanne Gilbertson and colleagues is a clear example of such type of study. Starting from the assumption that nanomaterials should provide advantages in terms of environmental costs, the team used a life-cycle assessment approach applied to previously published data on the use of nanofertilizers to estimate whether the total energy, including that needed for nanomaterial production besides their applications, and compared it with that of non-nano fertilizers.

Analyses such as that by Gilbertson and colleagues are especially valuable to provide direction to the community. In the specific case, the study shows that adding nanofertilizers to the soil is not overall an environmentally friendly strategy, while designing nanoparticles to be used in seed coating or foliar sprays could be. Such studies are also essential to rebut one of the main criticisms often posed to nanotechnology, namely, that experts in nanomaterials often need to find an application to justify their research. We can now be more confident that if properly designed, nanoparticles can really provide solutions to challenges in agriculture.