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From GMO to Nano: A Familiar Debate Over A New Technology

Scientists develop a new technology they claim will revolutionize food production and create healthier foods. Critics raise concerns that the technology poses great risks to human health and the environment. Government agencies have difficulty regulating the technology. Sound familiar? The new technology is not genetic engineering, but nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is defined as the manipulation and assembly of tiny objects at the level of molecules and atoms. Nanotechnology objects are measured in nanometers, which are one-billionth of a meter or one-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.

Materials reduced to nanoscale develop unique properties, not seen when they are normal size. Opaque materials, such as copper, become transparent; stable materials, such as aluminum become explosive; and solids, such as gold, turn into liquids.

Substances and materials behave differently at the nanoscale because this is the fundamental level where the essential properties of matter are determined. The laws of chemistry and physics work differently at the nano-scale.

Potential and applications

Proponents see great potential in nanotechnology. In his book, An Army of Davids, author Glenn Reynolds writes, �With the current rate of progress we�re seeing in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other technologies, it seems likely that individuals will one day�and one day relatively soon�possess powers once thought available only to nation-states, superheroes, or gods.� Further, Reynolds predicts nanotechnology may create as big a change as the Industrial Revolution.

For example, Reynolds says nanotechnology may be able to produce tiny medical devices that can repair clogged arteries, kill cancer cells, and fix cellular damage from aging.

Nanotech applications are already here. Worldwide demand for nano-scale materials, tools, and devices was an estimated $7.6 billion in 2003. Nanotechnology has been used extensively by the electronics industry for many years. Current nanotech applications include automobile paints, sunscreens, stain-resistant clothing, odor-free socks, bouncier tennis balls, displays on digital cameras and watches, and self-cleaning glass, to name a few. According to Friends of the Earth, there are an estimated 116 nanobased consumer products sold on the market.

Many other nanotech applications are in the works. Nanosolar of California is creating solar energy panels that are more flexible than conventional solar panels. Scientists at the University of Texas are creating carbon nanotubes that are 50 times stronger than steel wire and can carry a thousand times more electricity than copper wire.


Nanotechnology is also being applied to food and agriculture. Nanofoods are currently a $2.6 billion dollar industry that is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2010.

Supporters say nanotechnology will increase productivity and cost-effectiveness of food production; provide better food processing, packaging and logistics; enhance the nutrition and taste of foods; and provide better food safety and quality assurance.

Most nanotech applications are currently in food packaging, but some foods and ingredients are entering the market. BASF has introduced a synthetic lycopene that adds an orange color to food. Spray for Life, from Nanoceutical Laboratories Inc., uses a nanotech delivery system to make a vitamin supplement into a mouth spray. An Israeli company developed NutraLease, a nutraceutical technology that uses nano-capsules to enhance the delivery of nutrients. The technology is used in Canola Active, a cooking oil produced by Shemen Industries in Israel. Hundreds of other nanofoods are being developed, including nano-rice and nano-cheese.

Major food companies, such as Kraft, HJ Heinz, Nestl�, Hershey Foods, Campbell, and Unilever are researching nanofood applications. Nestl� is said to be developing nanocapsules that deliver nutrients and antioxidants to specific parts of the body at specific times. Kraft is looking at �smart� food packaging, which changes color to alert consumers that a food has spoiled.

In agriculture, nanotechnology is being used to develop microfine fertilizers and pesticides as well as microsensors for precision farming. The US Department of Agriculture is researching nanotech applications for identity preservation and tracking.

Nanoparticle health risks

Amidst the enthusiasm for nanotechnology, recent studies highlight potential dangers with the technology. Scientists say nanoparticles from foods and cosmetics may enter the brain from the bloodstream and cause health problems. Here are some initial findings:

- Researchers in the United States found that nanoparticles in sun creams have the potential to cause brain damage. In tests on mice, the particles over stimulated brain cells, which could possibly lead to brain damage.
- Scientists at NASA�s Johnson Space Center in Houston found that nanoparticles squirted into the respiratory tracts of mice caused significant lung damage and even killed a few mice.
- A Japanese scientist found that nanoparticles in mice moved from lungs into the blood where they could create blood clots.
- Researchers at the University of Michigan found that dendrimers, which are nano drug delivery systems for the body, punch holes in cell membranes and could kill cells.
- A study at Southern Methodist University found that nanoparticles known as Buckyballs caused brain damage in fish.

As a result of these findings, many researchers are calling for more safety studies on nanoparticles. A 2004 report by the ETC Group called for a moratorium on all food, feed, and beverage products that incorporate nanoparticles until they are shown to be safe. The report also called for a moratorium on nanoscale formulations of agricultural input products, including pesticides, fertilizers, and soil treatments also until these products are proven safe. United Kingdom based Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) argues that more safety data is needed before nanoparticles can be used in foods or food packaging materials. IFST says there is too little information on the properties of nanoparticles and how their size might influence toxicity. Further, IFST says it is necessary to treat nanoparticles as potentially harmful materials and to test them for safety.

More government oversight needed

There is some government oversight of nanotechnology applications. But, IFST says current regulations need to be strengthened, including a premarket safety evaluation, peerreviewed safety and toxicological data, and audit trails in case nanoparticles had to be removed from the market.

A coalition of food and environmental groups recently petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to strengthen its regulation of nanoparticle-based products. �Scientific bodies are beginning to develop an understanding of the serious risks that may be associated with nanomaterials,� said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment. �Every day, consumers are being asked to be a test market for some of those risks.�

The FDA recently announced formation of an internal Nanotechnology Task Force, which will determine regulatory approaches for nanotechnology materials.

The debate over nanotechnology sounds familiar to that over genetically modified foods. The IFST report stated, �Nanotechnology has already provoked public concern and debate. There are equally vociferous proponents and opponents of this new, emerging technology.�

Both nano and GMO are new technologies that are hailed by scientists and corporations for their potential, and criticized by environmental and consumer groups because of their risks. Both technologies manipulate fundamental levels of nature where the potential for negative unforeseen consequences is great. As with genetic engineering, opponents say that nanotechnology will concentrate economic power in the hands of a few huge multi-national corporations.

1. H�nninen, Karina, Vasara, Petri. Excerpts from paper on nanotechnology. Jaakko P�yry Consulting.
2. Reynolds, Glenn Harlan. �Empowering the Really Little Guys.� ?main=/articles/art0663.html
3. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
4. Kahn, Jennifer. �Welcome to the World of Nanotechnology.� National Geographic. June 2006.
5. Institute of Food Science and Technology. Information Statement-Nanotechnology. February 2006.
6. Wolbring, Gregor. �Nanofood.� July 31, 2006.
7. Feffer, John. �The Evolution of Frankenfoods.� Alternet. July 18, 2005.
8. Wolfe, Josh. �Safer And Guilt-Free Nano Foods.� Forbes, August 10, 2005.
9. Ball, Philip, �Nanoparticles in Sun Creams Can Stress Brain Cells.� Nature. June 21, 2006.
10. Raloff, Janet. �Nano Hazards: Exposure to Minute Particles Harms Lungs, Circulatory System.� Science News Online. March 19, 2005.
11. �Probing the Promise and Perils of Nanoparticles.� University of Michigan press release. March 16, 2005.
12. Holmes, Bob. �Buckyballs Cause Brain Damage in Fish.� March 29, 2004.
13. �Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture.� ETC Group. November 2004.
14. Weiss, Rick. �FDA Asked to Better Regulate Nanotechnology.� Washington Post. May 17, 2006.

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