Small is not necessarily beautiful

For the past couple of years in Australia, environmentalists have focused a large part of their energy on the campaign against the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Although this campaign was successful in some states, the state governments in Victoria and New South Wales have both agreed to the commercial production of GM canola, meaning that the GM genie is very much out of the bottle (sadly GM pollen doesn’t recognize state boundaries). The campaign against GM in Australia continues, of course, with the focus now on the (lack of) labelling on food products containing GM ingredients, but there is little sign of movement at state or federal level. As in all Western countries, corporate power continues to hold sway, regardless of the economic climate.

While researching the implications of the introduction of GM food into Australia, I began to consider the implications of nanotechnology in the context of food.

Nanotechnology is a branch of science that deals with particles 1-100 nanometres in size. A nanometre is a unit of length in the metric system equal to one billionth of a metre. What is important about these tiny particles is that they don’t behave in the ways that larger particles do. Take gold, for example. Its very value is based on the fact that, in its normal (large particle) form it is inert. Yet, particles of gold a few nanometres in diameter are highly reactive. Steve O’Connor of the UK’s Independent newspaper explains it as follows:

‘Nanoparticles have a much bigger surface area-to-volume ratio than microparticles a thousand times bigger. It is like trying to compare the surface area of a basketball with the combined surface area of pea-sized balls with the same total weight of the single basketball. The pea-sized balls have a surface area thousands of times bigger than the basketball, and this allows them to interact more easily with the environment. It is this increased interactivity that can change their functionality.’ (13 November 2008)

The discovery that nanoparticles behave differently from bigger particles explains why they are of interest to the scientific and corporate community. Already, nanoparticles are used in cosmetics and sunscreens, to make coats more waterproof or stain resistant and to strengthen tennis racquets and bicycles (to name but a few applications). Indeed, nanotechnology is a branch of science that might – or could – bring significant benefits:

‘Developments in nanotechnology could help provide clean, safe and inexpensive drinking water for everyone… Nanofiltration membranes (polymer filters) are already widely used to remove salts and micro pollutants. This works by the membranes selectively rejecting substances which remove harmful pollutants, while retaining nutrients. Nanotechnology is expected to improve membrane technology which will drive down costs of desalination.’ (Independent, 22 April 2008)

Whilst the idea of my coat being slightly more waterproof owing to nanotechnology doesn’t particularly bother me, the idea that millions of people could benefit from nanotechnology by having access to drinkable water is exciting – though not very realistic if social and political factors are added to the equation.

So, I am not arguing against nanotechnology per se. I can see that it may bring benefits. But I am concerned about the application of nanotechnology when it comes to food. According to the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which describes itself as having been ‘a leading researcher and strategist for companies and ministries in future technology markets worldwide for over 20 years’:

‘There are now over 600 nanofood products available on the market worldwide. These exciting achievements have encouraged a large increase of R&D investments in nanofood. Today, nanotechnology is no longer an empty buzzword, but an indispensable reality in the food industry.’

What this means in reality is that significant changes are being made to the way in which many people’s food is being produced and presented, without them knowing anything about it. For example, did you know that nanotechnology is being used for ‘interactive packaging’, where the food takes in chemicals from the packet as it sits on the shelf? Or that it is being used in the production of synthetic food colourings and frying oil preservatives and much more?

‘Chocolate-flavoured chewing gum, milk that tells you when it’s off… An American company has claimed to have created ‘the Holy Grail of chewing-gum design’ – chewing gum with real chocolate in it… Samsung has fridges on the market in Asia and America that use nano-silver to kill bacteria. Already in use in brewing and dairy production are nano-filters – screens so small they can filter out micro-organisms and even viruses. In lab experiments, the colour has been removed from beetroot juice, leaving the flavour; and red wine turned into white. Lactose can now be filtered from milk, and replaced with another sugar… Also available in American supermarkets is cooking oil that, in theory, can be kept fresh and soluble forever – thanks to nano-ceramic particles that enable clustering of dirt molecules… Nano-encapsulation means no more bribing your kids to eat fruit and oily fish: vitamin C-enriched cooking oil and omega-3 fish oil-carrying juices are already available. In Australia, you can buy a bread – Tip-Top – that contains undetectable nano-capsules of omega-3.’ (Guardian, UK, 13 December 2007)

All the above could be construed as good news. But, consider this. Many people thought that the introduction of asbestos was beneficial until they learned that it can cause cancer from accumulation in the body. So where is the scientific research concerned with the possible dangers of nanotechnology?

There simply isn’t anything on a large scale.

It is the same with GM. Large-scale scientific studies are not funded. As Judy Carman, an expert in this field, has often pointed out regarding the health implications of the ingestion of GM food, long-term, large-scale scientific studies on people have simply not been performed because of the corporate imperative.

Can we take the chance with nanofoods? And, besides, shouldn’t we be given the option whether or not we want to take the risk? As things currently stand, there may, for example, be a nanoscale coating on the chocolate bar that you eat and you wouldn’t know because there is no reason for the producers to tell you it was there. If there were regulations forcing producers to make it clear what they were doing, then consumers would have a choice. But, so far, governments haven’t been pressurized into making producers give us that choice.

It is time for nanotechnological applications in the food industry to be regulated and the only way in which that will happen is if we, the consumers, demand it.

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