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Nanotechnology is the creation and manipulation of tiny objects at the level of molecules and atoms. According to Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., nanotechnology is “the art and science of building stuff that does stuff at the nanometer scale.”
A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter or one-hundred thousandth the diameter of a human hair. Imagine comparing the size of a marble to the size of the earth.
The theory behind nanotechnology is that by manipulating and assembling molecules and atoms-the so-called building blocks of matter-in certain configurations scientists can create almost anything.
At the nano-scale, the laws of chemistry and physics work differently, and materials develop unique properties, not seen at normal size. Opaque materials, such as copper and zinc, become transparent; stable materials, such as aluminum, become explosive; and solids, such as gold, turn into liquids.
Scientists are applying nanotechnology to a wide range of industries, including food, food packaging, kitchenware, personal care, medicine, electronics, clothing, sports equipment, fertilizers, and pesticides. There are more than 800 consumer products on the market made using nanotechnology. A tableware set contains a nano silver coating that kills bacteria, aiming to prevent food-borne diseases. A toothpaste contains nanoparticles that help remove plaque and provide minerals to protect against tooth decay. A golf club shaft is made from “nano composite technology” to be stronger and lighter weight.
Disturbingly, nanotechnology could also be used to make chemical and biological weapons. A report by NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly Committee stated, “The potential for nanotechnology innovations in chemical and biological weapons is particularly disquieting, as nanotechnology can considerably enhance the delivery mechanisms of agents or toxic substances.”
Nano foods and packaging
In foods, proponents say nanotechnology can boost and target nutrition, extend food shelf life, improve taste and texture, and detect bacterial contamination. There are 150-600 nano food and 400-500 nano food packaging applications on store shelves. Toddler Health is a nutritional supplement containing nano iron particles that claims to offer toddlers increased bioavailability. Canola Active cooking oil contains NutraLease, a nutraceutical technology that uses nanocapsules to enhance the delivery of nutrients. A preservative known as AquaNova contains nano capsules of water insoluble substances to increase absorption in the body. McDonald’s burger packages contain nano-spheres that require less water and less time and energy to dry. Miller Beer bottles are made from Imperm, a plastic imbued with clay nanoparticles that are as hard as glass but stronger and provide longer shelf life.
Major food companies, such as General Mills, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Cadbury-Schweppes, and Unilever, are researching and developing nano food and food packaging applications building what is expected to be a $6 billion market by 2010.
There are nano agricultural applications. Syngenta has developed a plant growth treatment, PrimoMaxx nano emulsion. Cornell scientists developed a cloth with saturated nano fibers that slowly release pesticides and herbicides when it is planted with seeds.
Other agricultural giants conducting nanotechnology research include Dupont, BASF, and Cargill, but, surprisingly, not Monsanto.
Like genetically modified foods, products of nanotechnology pose risks to human health and the environment. Nanopaticles are more chemically reactive than larger particles. Because they are so small, they have greater access to the human body than larger particles. They can be inhaled, penetrate skin, gain access to tissues and cells, and cross the blood-brain barrier.
Assessing the risks of nanotechnology is lagging far behind. “There is virtually no data on chronic, long-term effects on people, other organisms or the wider environment,” wrote British scientist John Lawton, author of a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
Initial studies raise red flags. A recent study published in Nature showed that carbon nanotubes may exhibit the same cancer-causing potential as asbestos. In tests on rats, nanosilver has also been shown to be toxic to liver, brain, and stem cells and may harm beneficial bacteria.
Problems with sunscreens
Sunscreens are the most widely used consumer product containing nanoparticles. Researchers in the United States found that in tests on mice, sunscreen nanoparticles over stimulated brain cells, which could lead to brain damage.
Studies by researchers at the University of Toledo and Utah State University and the University of Utah found that nanoparticles, including nanotitanium dioxide, found in sunscreens killed beneficial bacteria and soil microbes.
Antibacterial nano food packaging and nano-sensor technologies may also harm beneficial bacteria in our bodies and the environment, and lead to the development of more harmful bacteria. Nano agrochemicals are likely to be more potent and toxic even in very small quantities.
As a result of the dangers, the National Research Council has called for more research on the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration and Friends of the Earth are calling for a moratorium on products containing nanoparticles until safety laws are established and the public is involved in decision making.
Like genetic engineering, nanotechnology is viewed as a techo-fix to solve the worlds’ food challenges. However, it is likely to further entrench fossil fuel and chemical intensive industrial agriculture and encourage continued reliance on large monoculture farms, resulting in the loss of small farms and biodiversity.
Regulations struggling to catch up
Government regulators are also lagging far behind the rapid development of nanotechnology. The European Union has taken the lead regulating nanotechnology as it did with GM foods. The EU will require nanoparticles in cosmetics to be labeled on the ingredients list and require increased safety testing for cosmetics containing nanoparticles. It will also prevent nanomaterials from being placed on the food market until being subject to nano-specific, standardized, safety assessments.
The problem with the new regulation is that it will take nearly 44 months to come into effect, despite the fact that nanocosmetics are already on store shelves.
Earlier this year, Canada became the first government in the world to require companies to provide information about their use of nanomaterials in products.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s current policy is similar to its policy of substantial equivalence with GM foods, treating nanoparticle food ingredients no differently than bulk material ingredients or products.
J. Clarence Davies, a former official with the US Environmental Protection Agency, has called for the creation of a new Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection to oversee nano product development and risk assessment.
As with GM foods, the US government and industry both argue that labeling products containing nanoparticles would scare consumers with inaccurate or incomplete information.
Consumers in the dark
As American consumers eat GM foods without their knowledge, so they are unaware of using and consuming nano-based products. There is very little public awareness of nanotechnology. One survey found that 49% of Americans haven’t heard anything about nanotechnology, 26% heard just a little, 17% heard some, and only 7% heard a lot.
Next month: Nanotechnology’s impact on organic foods
1.The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. www.nanotechproject. org.
2.Associated Press. “Scientists concerned about nanotech products.” November 13, 2008.
3.Food and Water Watch. “The Risks of Nanotechnology.” September 2008
4.Ball, Philip, “Nanoparticles in Sun Creams Can Stress Brain Cells.” Nature. June 21, 2006.
5.KABC-TV. “Studies Show Nanoparticles Used in Sunscreens and Makeup can Harm the Environment.” March 26, 2009
6.”Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture.” ETC Group. November 2004.