Georgia Miller from Friends of the Earth Australia (via video link) joined Sue Davies from UK consumer group Which? and Professor Vyvyan Howard representing the Soil Association in giving evidence to the UK House of Lords Inquiry into Nanotechnologies and Food. Georgia emphasised that nanotechnology’s use in food poses challenges far beyond those of food safety. It demands that we question what sort of food and agricultural policy we want to support, and whether nanotechnology will help or hinder efforts to improve its ecological sustainability and social value.

Georgia also questioned the claimed benefits of nanotechnology’s use in food, suggesting that many benefits were trivial, would accrue to manufacturers rather than consumers, or were in fact likely to present their own health problems or social costs. She also emphasised that beyond the need for mandatory product labelling, the public should be involved in decision making about nanotechnology policy and research funding.

Professor Howard stressed the significant knowledge gaps that exist in the understanding of nanomaterials’ health implications, including in relation to their movement around and their persistence in the human body. He emphasised that the use of nanomaterials in food is particularly risky, as the average person consumes tonnes of food in their life time. He described a range of potential health risks, that nano-ingredients in foods could: act as ‘Trojan Horses’, smuggling contaminants or toxins into cells; induce protein misfolding, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s and Jacob’s Creutzfeld disease; and for tiny nanoparticles to access previously inaccesible parts of the body, eg by crossing the blood-brain barrier. Professor Howard supported calls for a moratorium to apply to nanotechnology’s use in food, saying that the safety science needs to catch up before we begin “dosing people”.

Sue Davies emphasised that nanotechnology poses a range of pressing issues for consumers that require attention early in nanotechnology’s development cycle. In a citizen’s panel that Which? organised in late 2007, participants were very interested in the potential for nanotechnology to deliver social benefits, but also concerned about potential health and safety risks. They were strongly in favour of mandatory labelling of nanoproducts, and wanted regulation to ensure the safety of nanoproducts. Sue emphasised the need for transparency in government handling of nanotechnology issues, as well as in relation to industry’s use of nanotechnology, warning that a lack of transparency now would trigger suspicion in the community.

For a transcript of aural evidence given to the Inquiry to date visit: