Vesicular arbuscular (VA) mycorrhizas are roots infected with particular soil fungi which form symbiotic associations. It is often assumed that VA mycorrhizal fungi could be used to increase the efficiency of phosphate fertilizers in agriculture. Our principal concern is the question: ‘Can the symbiosis be exploited on a large scale?'. VA mycorrhizas increase nutrient uptake, and hence plant growth, by shortening the distance that nutrients must diffuse through soil to the root. Mycorrhizal roots do not appear to have a lower threshold concentration of nutrients for absorption from solution than do non-mycorrhizal roots. Most soils contain VA mycorrhizas. Hence, for plant growth to respond to inoculation with VA mycorrhizal fungi, agricultural soils must have either a low incidence of indigenous VA mycorrhizal fungi or alternatively, species which are less effective than the inoculant fungi in their ability to stimulate nutrient uptake by plants. The distribution of species of VA mycorrhizal fungi varies with climatic and edaphic environment, as well as with land use. However, the factors which control their distribution are poorly understood. Differences among VA mycorrhizal fungi in their ability to increase nutrient uptake appear to be due to differences in their ability to form mycorrhizas rapidly and extensively. The importance of other differences among the fungi, such as in the absorption of nutrients from solution or in the distribution and amount of external mycelium, has yet to be clearly demonstrated. Inoculant VA mycorrhizal fungi must be capable of persisting in soils at a high inoculum potential, as well as being able to increase nutrient uptake. Until now, little attention has been paid to characteristics which enable the fungi to persist after inoculation. We are critical of many of the methods employed in experiments aimed at selecting ‘efficient’ VA mycorrhizal fungi. For practical purposes, selection can only be achieved by means of comparisons performed in untreated field soils, with phosphorus supply limiting plant growth. Because the form of inoculum can affect the relative abilities of VA mycorrhizal fungi to infect and improve plant growth, appropriate inocula are needed for each agricultural situation. The survival of many species of fungi in various types of inocula requires further study so that procedures can be developed for introducing particular fungi into agricultural soils. This review emphasizes many gaps in our knowledge. For example, we need more information on how and to what extent species or strains of VA mycorrhizal fungi differ in their ability to increase plant growth. We know even less about their beneficial effects in years following that of field inoculation. The ecology of indigenous VA mycorrhizal fungi in field soils has also been largely neglected. These and other deficiencies preclude any immediate recommendations for large-scale inoculation with selected VA mycorrhizal fungi.