In a new report, the Science and Technology Committee of the UK House of Lords criticises industry secrecy surrounding the use and development of nanofoods. It also warns that the health risks of nanofoods remain poorly understood. However the committee rejected calls to recommend mandatory product labelling of nano-ingredients, a moratorium on the use of nano-ingredients in food until new safety assessment is introduced, and assessment of broader social implications of nanotechnology’s use in food and agriculture.
FoEA welcomed the House of Lords’ inquiry and provided both written and aural evidence to the committee. However we are concerned that the committee’s consideration of nanofood issues appears biased by a commitment to supporting near-term commercialisation of nanofood, and a view that further high technology modification of food will deliver health, social and environmental benefits. The committee’s frequent reference to potential benefits, without meaningful acknowledgement or evaluation of potential costs, is concerning.
In passing (Box 2, page 67), the committee recognised that non-scientific aspects of a technology can have a key influence on whether or not the public supports it. This was clearly demonstrated in the UK with respect to GM crops, where the public was concerned about ethical issues, corporate control, scientific hubris, public choice and farmers’ capacity to save seed, additional to health and environmental risks. However in its report, although the committee stressed that public support was a prerequisite for successful development of a nanofood industry, it fails entirely to consider broader, non-technical risk concerns regarding nanotechnology’s use in food.
The report notes that ‘ethical’ issues were considered outside the scope of its inquiry. It appears although the committee was willing to document industry claims about potential social benefits from nanotechnology’s use in foods, civil society concerns about social costs were treated as ‘ethical’ issues and therefore not included. At no point does the report address concerns cited by FoEA in our submissions that nanotechnology’s expansion in food and agriculture could undermine food sovereignty – the capacity of local farmers and communities to control their own food production and trade.
The failure of the committe to recommend public participation in decision making about nanotechnology’s use in food and agriculture is also particularly disappointing. The committee emphasises that in order to avoid a GM-style rejection of nanofoods, early stage public engagement is required. The committe documents calls from FoEA and others for public involvement in decision making about whether or not to support or allow nanotechnology in food and agriculture. However its recommendations focus on the need for ‘education’ to promote acceptance of nanofoods, rather than an effort to support meaningful public involvement in decision making.
The committee recommends establishment of a mandatory register of all nanomaterials approved for use in foods. This is a positive step. However its recommendation against product labelling to ensure point of sale informed consumer choice belies its stated committment to ensuring transparency and choice.
For media coverage of the report’s release visit: