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Nanotech concerns highlight core research needs

By Rod Addy , 29-Jan-2013
Last updated on 29-Jan-2013 at 16:27 GMT

Public concerns about nanotechnology in food processing highlight important areas for further research, according to a US paper just published in the journal Nanobiotechnology.

The study reviews the progress of US research initiatives covering nanotech science, funded by the US Department of Agriculture via the National Research Initiative and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (NRI/AFRI).

The NRI/AFRI programme has included risk assessment of nanoparticles relevant to agricultural production and foods in the priorities of its request for funding applications.

The programme seeks particularly to support research into evaluation of exposures to engineered nanomaterials and increased understanding of engineered nanoscale additives and ingredients introduced into foods to convey sensory or health benefits.

Social and ethical issues

“In addition to the health and safety issues of possible new nano-produced foods, there is a concern among some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) related to broad social and ethical issues,” according to the paper’s authors.

“One concern is that nanotechnology will become concentrated within multinational corporations and that this could impact the livelihood of the poor.”

The areas of concern resemble the debates surrounding previous emerging technologies, particularly biotechnology, the researchers state.

Fear of novel risks

“The Public’s scepticism is influenced by a number of concerns, including a fear of novel risks, trust or lack of trust in the regulatory process and wider social and ethical concerns.”

These attitudes highlight important research needs, including investigation into the toxicity of nanomaterials, particularly related to ingestion, plus work on a legislative definition and a database of nanomaterials to anticipate future risks.

The paper’s authors propose the formation of a broad coalition of scientists, engineers, farmers, food processors and manufacturers, interested NGOs and consumers to discuss nanotechnology.

Comprehensive interactions

They call for the development of comprehensive interactions with the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss regulations.

They press for public-private partnerships in which agricultural and food companies interact with government departments and universities on nanotechnology and the organization of open forums of debate for the public.

The researchers claim the biggest topic of interest for nanotech scientists engaging with the NRI/AFRI programme is the use of nanostructures, nanoparticles and nanomaterials. This is followed by a focus on nanosensors.

Successful grants

“Most of the successful grants are issued in the area of food safety/health/nutrition,” they observe.

Carbon nanotube and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy nanosensor arrays to identify pathogens and toxins, and edible nanoparticle sensors for detecting food quality and safety are examples of nanosensors.

“We envision that the convergence between nanotechnology, biotechnology, plant science, animal science and crop and food science/technology will lead to revolutionary advances in the next five to 10 years,” the paper’s authors conclude.

  • Source: 'Nanoscale science and engineering for agriculture and food systems'; Industrial Biotechnology, December 2012; Volume 8, issue 6; doi: 10.1089/ind.2012.1549 ; Authors: Norman Scott, Cornell University, New York, and Hongda Chen, USDA - National Institute of Food & Agriculture

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