Cola-tasting nano-milk and fat-reduced nano-mayonnaise are just two of the nanotechnology-based food products in the pipeline from Wageningen University in Holland. The fact that these researchers were prepared to talk about their work is unusual – use of nanotechnology in the emotive area of food production is shrouded by secrecy. Although the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy Group estimates that over 300 nano-food products are now on the market, the US Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies consumer products inventory lists only three food products whose labels disclose their nano content.

In years past, food giants such as Kraft and Nestlé spoke freely of their nano-research to design ‘smart’ foods that interact with consumers to ‘personalise’ food, changing colour, flavour or nutrients on demand. Their vision was that ‘smart’ foods would sense when an individual was allergic to a food’s ingredients, and block the offending ingredient. Or alternatively, ‘smart’ packaging could release a dose of calcium molecules to people suffering from osteoporosis.

Nanotechnology would be used to manufacture ‘functional’ foods with enhanced nutritional content and junk foods that could be marketed for their health-giving properties. Nanotechnology would even be used to manufacture ‘smart’ packaging to dramatically extend the shelf life of food and enable it to be transported even further. Meanwhile, nano-surveillance would enable food to be tracked from the paddock, through the processing chain, into supermarkets and beyond.

The iconic example of nano-based ‘future food’ was Kraft’s clear, tasteless nano-drink that contained hundreds of flavours in invisible nanocapsules. The idea was that a microwave transmitter could be used to trigger release of the colour, flavour, concentration and texture of the individual’s choice. This ‘smart’ drink received international attention and remains the most widely cited example of nano-food. However in the past few years, sensing mounting concern over nano-manipulation of food, Kraft, along with other major food companies, no longer talks publicly about its research into nano foods.

Further distancing itself from nano-food research, Kraft has shunted its previously high profile nano-food research Nanotek Consortium off to sister organisation Philip Morris USA (also owned by Altria) and renamed it the Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies.

The unwillingness of food companies to talk about their current use of nanotechnology in food production and their plans for its future use is a huge a blow to transparency. Without any requirement for manufacturers to label nano-foods, or any willingness on the part of companies to do so voluntarily, there is no way for people to choose whether or not to eat nano-foods. This breach of public trust is compounded by government’s failure to regulate nano-food products to ensure that workers, the public and the environment do not face unsafe exposure to nanomaterials.

The United Kingdom’s Royal Society raised serious concerns about the health and environment risks posed by nanotoxicity in its 2004 report. The Royal Society recommended that: “ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment by the relevant scientific advisory body before they are permitted for use in products” (Section 8.3.3: paragraph 24 & 23).

However, three years later, there is still no requirement for manufacturers to conduct new safety testing of nano-ingredients prior to releasing them into the global food chain and into the environment. See Friends of the Earth Australia publications on the risks to the environment and human health posed by nanotoxicity here.

In its application to agriculture, nanotechnology also poses a serious threat to food sovereignty. As new nanoproducts will be controlled by patents, many of which are held in the Global North, nanotechnology will inevitably concentrate corporate control of food production. Nanotechnology is the atomically processed, patent-controlled antithesis to locally controlled and ecologically sustainable food systems.

Nanobiotechnology could take the genetic engineering of agriculture to the next level down – atomic engineering. Atomic engineering could enable the DNA of seeds to be rearranged in order to obtain different plant properties including colour, growth season, yield etc – all supposedly without modifying heritable traits. Nanotechnology could also be used to manufacture highly potent atomically engineered fertilisers and pesticides. Nano-sensors could monitor plant growth, pH levels, the presence of nutrients, moisture, pests or disease, significantly reducing the need for on-farm labour. For a comprehensive overview of nanotechnology’s potential use in agriculture and food production see the ETC Group’s seminal publication “Down on the Farm”.

There are some nanotechnology proponents who argue that rather than presenting a threat to food sovereignty, nanotechnology will actually be a boon for farmers in the Global South, boosting productivity and eliminating hunger. However those familiar with the genetic engineering debacle see parallels in the claims made by that industry, and claims being made by the emerging nano-food lobby.

The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper reports that Dr Donald Bruce, a chemist who heads a group examining technology and ethics for the Church of Scotland, is doubtful about industry claims that nano-agriculture will help the Global South. Dr Bruce sat on a committee 10 years ago which examined the moral implications of the introduction of genetic engineering.

“The public were told that genetic modification was going to feed the world. And so we looked for evidence of any application of that science that had addressed the needs of a poor subsistence farmer. We couldn’t find any. The industry went for agronomic benefits, not for people benefits.”

Genetic engineering of food products resulted in a world-wide backlash which is still reverberating around the world. But despite nanotechnology going even further in its atomic-level manipulation of our food from paddock to plate, to date it has received scant public attention.

The low level of attention paid to the use of nanotechnology in food and agriculture is despite estimates from the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy Group that the global nano food market was worth US$5.3 billion in 2005 and will rise to US$20.4 billion by 2010. It predicts that nanotechnology will be used in 40% of the food industries by 2015.

There is an urgent need for critical assessment of nanotechnology’s entry into the global food chain. Friends of the Earth Australia repeats its call for a moratorium on the release of commercial nanoproducts, and the conduct of commercial nanotechnology research, until we have precaution-based regulatory systems in place to manage this powerful new technology, and public involvement in decision making about its introduction.