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Food Industry Secretive over Nanotechnology

1.Comment from Patrick Mulvany, Co-chair UK Food Group
2.Food industry 'too secretive' over nanotechnology

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1.Comment from Patrick Mulvany, Co-chair UK Food Group

As warned in my New Year message, industry is pushing hard for greater control over the food system. Beyond GMOs, proprietary nanotechnologies and synthetic biology will confer even greater control to food and agribusinesses.

Following hot on the heels of the DEFRA 2030 food strategy published on Tuesday this week, which says "GM, like nanotechnology, is not a technological panacea for meeting the varied and complex challenges of food security, but could have some potential to help meet future challenges", the House of Lords published its report on Thursday "Nanotechnologies and Food". A BBC report on this is pasted below.

The House of Lords report can be found at,, (report) and (evidence).

The House of Lords committee, headed by Krebs (ex Food Standards Agency), is trying to educate the public to accept nanoparticles in their food or food packaging. The estimated market in food related nanotechnology is expected to increase 10 fold by 2012. Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, run by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has found that there are currently 84 foods or food-related products that use nanotechnology.

Lord Krebs said that the industry " their fingers burnt over the use of GM crops and so they want to keep a low profile on this issue. We believe that they should adopt exactly the opposite approach. If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive."

The openness and transparency proposed by the House of Lords committee is, however, very limited... Recommendation 30 says:

"8.30. Consumers can expect to have access to information about the food they eat. But blanket labelling of nanomaterials on packages is not, in our view, the right approach to providing information about the application of nanotechnologies."

Georgia Miller's (Friends of the Earth, Australia) excellent evidence to the Committee, in the same session with Sue Davies of WHICH and Vyvyan Howard, Soil Association (pp 156 and following, in part 2 of the report) includes in annexe the call from CSOs for a moratorium in the use of nanomaterials in food and agriculture.


Growing numbers of civil society groups have called for a moratorium on the commercial release of food, food packaging, food contact materials and agrochemicals that contain manufactured nanomaterials until nanotechnology-specific regulation is introduced to protect the public, workers and the environment from their risks. Some of these groups are also insisting that the public be involved in decision making. Groups calling for a moratorium include: Corporate Watch (UK); the ETC Group; Friends of the Earth (Australia, Europe and the United States); GeneEthics (Australia); Greenpeace International; International Centre for Technology Assessment (US); International Federation of Journalists; the Loka Institute; Practical Action; and The Soil Association UK. The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations, representing 12 million workers from 120 countries, has also called for a moratorium.

The Nyeleni Forum for Food Sovereignty was a civil society meeting of peasants, family farmers, fisher people, nomads, indigenous and forest peoples, rural and migrant workers, consumers and environmentalists from across the world. Delegates were concerned that the expansion of nanotechnology into agriculture will present new threats to the health and environment of peasant and fishing communities and further erode food sovereignty. The forum also resolved to work towards an immediate moratorium on nanotechnology (Nye'le'ni 2007-Forum for Food Sovereignty 2007).

The organic sector is also beginning to move to exclude nanomaterials from organic food and agriculture. The United Kingdom's largest organic certification body announced in late 2007 that it will ban nanomaterials from all products which it certifies. All organic foods, health products, sunscreens and cosmetics that the Soil Association certifies will now be guaranteed to be free from manufactured nanomaterial additives (British Soil Association 2008). The Biological Farmers of Australia, Australia's largest organic representative body, have also moved to ban nanomaterials from products it certifies.

A faux 'moratorium' is proposed by the House of Lords committee. It is simply a recommendation not to allow the use of unlicensed materials.

Risk Assessment

"8.20. We endorse the case-by-case approach taken by the European Food Safety Authority in assessing the safety of products. It allows the responsible development of low-risk products where safety data are available and is, in effect, a selective moratorium on products where safety data are not available. It provides consumers with the greatest security and ensures that unless a product can be fully safety assessed, on its own merits, it will not be allowed on to the market (paragraph 6.12). (Recommendation 20)"

It might be useful for the House of Lords committee to set this report in the context of a food sovereignty, as opposed to the food industry's, interpretation of DEFRA's indicators for a sustainable food system. A food sovereignty interpretation would emphasise specific indicators for good, healthy food sourced as locally as possible from knowledgeable and skilled food providers who use ecological practices. le%20Food%20System%20FINAL.pdf

The indicators align to each section of Food 2030:
1. Enabling and encouraging people to eat a healthy, sustainable diet
2. Ensuring a resilient, profitable and competitive food system
3. Increasing food production sustainably
4. Reducing the food system's greenhouse gas emissions
5. Reducing, reusing and reprocessing waste
6. Increasing the impact of skills, knowledge, research and technology

The indicator assessments on the following pages should be read in conjunction with the UK Food Security Assessment

For a backgrounder on the potential dangers of nanotechnology in the food system see "Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture"

We need to be vigilant.


PS You may be interested to see that DEFRA's statistics team praises Cadbury's decision to make its Dairy Milk bar a fairtrade product (Indicators, p 123). This is the same DEFRA that highlights Kraft foods as an example of sustainable practice (Food 2030, p 28). People in Bournville will not be amused... DEFRA should rather have called in Kraft for 'sharp practice'.

Patrick Mulvany Co-chair
UK Food Group

Senior Policy Adviser
PracticalAction Bourton, Rugby, CV23 9QZ

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2.Food industry 'too secretive' over nanotechnology
By Pallab Ghosh, Science correspondent,
BBC News
*Nanotechnology is appearing in an ever-wider range of products

The food industry has been criticised for being secretive about its use of nanotechnology by the UK's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Lord Krebs, chairman of the inquiry, said the industry "wants to keep a low profile" to avoid controversy.

While there were no clear dangers, he said, there were "gaps in knowledge".

In its report Nanotechnologies and Food, the committee suggests a public register of foods or packaging that make use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the use of very small particles - measured in the billionths of a metre. At these sizes, particles have novel properties and there is active investigation into how those properties arise.

While nanotechnology is already widely employed - in applications ranging from odour-free socks to novel cancer therapeutic methods - they have long been regarded as a subject requiring further study to ensure their safety.

In the food sector, nanotechnology can be employed to enhance flavour and even to make processed foods healthier by reducing the amount of fat and salt needed in production.

Open standards

Peers said in the report that they found it "regrettable that the food industry was refusing to talk about its work in the area".

We are not clear what is out there in use at the moment

They added that it was exactly this behaviour that could prompt public backlash against the use of a technology that could bring many benefits to the public.

Lord Krebs said that the industry was "very reluctant to put its head above the parapet and be open about research on nanotechnology".

"They got their fingers burnt over the use of GM crops and so they want to keep a low profile on this issue. We believe that they should adopt exactly the opposite approach. If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive."

As part of this process, the committee recommends that the Food Standards Agency should have a publicly available register listing food and packaging that use nano-materials.

Julian Hunt, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation, said he was "surprised" by the criticism.

"Understandably, there are many questions and unknowns about the potential future uses of nanotechnologies in our sector, and there is much work still to be done, by scientists, governments and regulators, as well as the food and drink industry," Mr Hunt said.

Safety concerns have also been raised about nanomaterials in cosmetics

"We support the report's recommendation for the formation of an open discussion group to bring more transparency that we know is important to consumers, and indeed we are already engaged in such initiatives, both at UK and EU level."

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, run by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has found that there are currently 84 foods or food-related products that use nanotechnology.

The Food and Drink Federation says that none are currently manufactured in the UK.

'No clear danger'

However, Lord Krebs says he and his colleagues are concerned that because of industry secrecy, it is hard to really know the true extent of the use of nanotechnology in food.

"We are not clear what is out there in use at the moment," he said.

The report says that there is likely to be an "explosive growth" in the use of the technology.

Currently the market is valued at $410m (£260m), but the report estimates it will increase more than ten-fold in the next two years.

The report also says insufficient research has been carried out into the safety of the use of nanotechnology in foods. It urges the government to commission more research on the behaviour of nanomaterials, particularly in the gut.

"There is currently no clear and present danger from nanotechnology," according to Lord Krebs.

"But there are significant gaps in our knowledge for regulators to adequately assess the risk of nanomaterials in food."