October 19, 2015 | By: Jeff Franklin

Two University of Kentucky scientists are part of a newly established international consortium investigating the environmental impacts of nanotechnology-based agrochemicals.

The three-year $1.2 million grant entitled Fate and Effects of Agriculturally Relevant Materials (NanoFARM) was funded by the European Union and the U.S. National Science Foundation through the European Area Research Networks (ERA-NET). Typically this is a program for scientists in E.U. member states, but this year the U.S. participated in the program by providing funding through various agencies, enabling participation of U.S. researchers.

The National Science Foundation funded Jason Unrine and Olga Tsyusko, in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, to participate in ERA-NET consortium.  Additionally, the consortium includes scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Aveiro in Portugal and the University of Vienna in Austria.  The proposal was highly ranked by peer reviewers. Out of 48 proposals, only five projects with U.S. partners received funding.

Nanomaterials are materials that have at least one dimension which is less than 100 nanometers (a billionth of a meter).  Materials are engineered on this size scale to confer unique, tailored properties which result from their small size. Nanotechnology is used in agricultural applications ranging from fertilizers and pesticides to food packaging and sensing of food borne pathogens. Researchers hope that increases in efficiency to agricultural systems resulting from application of nanotechnology will help with increasing demands for food and fiber production with decreasing availability of water, energy and land.

The project will investigate the behavior and transport of commercial fertilizers and fungicides that contain nanomaterials. It will investigate the behavior, environmental transport and toxicity of these materials as well as entry into food chains including uptake of nanomaterials into crops consumed by humans.

“This is among the first projects to systematically investigate potential human and environmental impacts of nanomaterial-based agrochemicals” Unrine said. “These materials are used in relatively high concentrations intended to cause biological effects. This project will provide information and tools to ensure their safe use in agricultural production systems.”

Researchers hope that, through collaboration with the manufacturers of these products, that the project will provide feedback to the design process to increase their safety and decrease environmental impacts, he said. In addition, the value of trade in agriculture between the U.S. and the E.U. (total exports and imports) was $29.5 billion USD in 2013. Uncertainty in food safety due to the use of nanotechnology-enabled agrochemicals could lead to severe economic consequences to both the U.S. and the E.U.  Thus, a significant transnational benefit of the proposed work is to provide the relevant agencies in the U.S. and E.U. with knowledge and data regarding the safety of these products, Unrine said.

“The project will deliver a consistent message to key agencies in the U.S. and E.U. about the potential risks of nanomaterials in agricultural products,” he said. “This will allow the agencies to develop consistent science-based regulations that provide food safety, facilitating trade of agricultural products (both agrochemicals and food) between the U.S. and the E.U.”


Jason Unrine, 859-257-1657

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