Nanotechnology: a food production revolution in waiting

Related tags Food production Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology offers food production many potential benefits, but
its development must be guided by appropriate safety assessments
and regulation if risks are to be minimised, according to a UK

The study, commissioned by the UK government and carried out be the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, considered current and future developments in nanotechnology. It identified a range of potential benefits to be gained from nanoscience and nanotechnologies including new materials, more powerful computers and revolutionary medical techniques.

This assertion is backed up by another recent study from Helmut Kaiser Consultancy​, which looked into nanotechnology in the food industry. The report estimates that the nanofood market will surge from $2.6 billion today to 20.4 billion in 2010.

Already, more than 200 companies around the world active in research and development. USA is the leader followed by Japan and China.

Nanoscience and nanotechnologies involve the study and use of materials at an extremely small scale - at sizes of millionths of a millimetre - and exploit the fact that some materials have different properties at this ultra small scale from those at a larger scale.

In the future, the science may be used in food production, and to detect how fresh food is. Researchers in the UK were recently awarded a £1.4 million government grant to develop a new generation of micro Rheometers to help characterise and develop liquid based products.

Furthermore, the Helmut Kaiser study, entitled "Nanofood,"​ argues that in the future, food will be designed by shaping molecules and atoms. The study predicts that nanoscale biotech and nano-bio-info will have a major impact on the food and food-processing industries.

The ability to manipulate the molecules and the atoms of food will allow the food industry to design food with much more capability and precision, and help lower costs, claims the study. This will make products cheaper, production more efficient and more sustainable through using less water and chemicals.

Producing less waste and using less energy is a central concern of food manufacturers, and the drive towards production efficiency is likely to continue to boost nanotechnology funding.

The main source of increasing the speed for these technologies within the next years are climate change, cost efficiency and population growth. But also new applications using food as drugs and nutrition.

However, the Royal Society report recommended that specific steps be taken in order to realise these while minimising possible future risks. The study highlighted uncertainties about the potential effects on human health and the environment of manufactured these 'nanoparticles' and 'nanotubes' - ultra small pieces of material - if they are released.

"This report has confirmed the great potential of nanotechnologies,"​ said professor Ann Dowling, chair of the working group that produced the report.

"Most areas present no new health or safety risks, but where particles are concerned, size really does matter. Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger particles of the same material and this can be exploited in a number of exciting ways. But it is vital that we determine both the positive and negative effects they might have."

Because of their novel chemical properties, the report recommends that nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as new chemicals under UK and European legislation, in order to trigger appropriate safety tests and clear labelling. Furthermore they should be approved - separately from chemicals in a larger form - by an independent scientific safety committee before they are permitted for use in consumer products.

"There is a gap in the current regulation of nanoparticles,"​ said Dowling. "They have different properties from the same chemical in larger form, but currently their production does not trigger additional testing. It is important that the regulations are tightened up so that nanoparticles are assessed, both in terms of testing and labelling, as new chemicals."

The report does not find any justification for imposing a ban on the production of nanoparticles. However, as a precautionary measure it recommends that releases to the environment be minimised until the effects are better understood.

It also recommends that governments should initiate a properly funded public dialogue around the development of nanotechnologies at a stage when such discussions can inform key decisions about their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised positions appear.

"Nanotechnologies clearly offer exciting possibilities which could benefit society as a whole,"​ said Dowling. "Our report separates the hype and hypothetical from the reality and now we need research in areas of uncertainty and appropriate regulation to ensure that nanotechnologies develop in a safe and socially acceptable way."

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