Thanks to nanotechnology,
tomorrow's food will be designed by shaping molecules and atoms. Food will
be wrapped in "smart" safety packaging that can detect spoilage or harmful
contaminants. Future products will enhance and adjust their color, flavor,
or nutrient content to accommodate each consumer's taste or health needs.
And in agriculture, nanotechnology promises to reduce pesticide use,
improve plant and animal breeding, and create new nano-bioindustrial
The Helmut Kaiser Consultancy estimates that the nanotech food market
is growing rapidly and will reach over $20 billion by 2010 -- about three
times its current size. A recent study by Cientifica found over 150
nanotechnology applications in the food industry at present, with some of
the world's biggest companies -- like Altria, Nestle, Kraft, Heinz and
Unilever -- involved in nanotechnology research and development.
The U.S. government is investing in nanotech agrifood as a part of its
annual $1.2 billion nanotechnology research budget. A new report,
Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production: Anticipated
Applications, for the first time analyzes the publicly available data on
federally funded research projects in agrifood nanotechnology, supplemented
with data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Written by Jennifer Kuzma and Peter VerHage from the University of
Minnesota's Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy, the report
estimates possible areas and timeframes for future nanotechnology-based
food and agriculture applications. It takes an early look at potential
benefits and risks, and it explores possible areas and needs for
environmental, health and safety oversight. Their work also resulted in
creation of a searchable, online database with over 160 research projects
available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/50.
Today's nanotech food products include a new variety of canola oil
containing tiny materials that can block cholesterol from entering the
bloodstream, and a chocolate milkshake that supposedly tastes better and is
more nutritious than conventional shakes -- thanks to the unusual
properties of a new ingredient that is 100,000 smaller than a grain of
sand. Nanoscale droplets of a new substance have been added to pesticides
so that formulations that once had to be shaken every two hours to prevent
ingredients from separating now hold together for up to one year.
"The number of nanotechnology food products currently being sold
appears to be relatively small," said David Rejeski, director of the
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which supported this study. "But with
millions of dollars being spent globally by both government and industry to
apply nanotechnologies in areas such as food processing, food safety and
packaging, and agricultural production, it is the right time to start
asking a number of related questions: What nano-engineered food products
will appear on the market over the next year or two? What are the potential
benefits and risks? Who will be affected? And how can consumers become
engaged early on?"
"The goal of this report is to look upstream in order to develop an
early understanding about what is on the nano agrifood horizon," said Dr.
Kuzma. "In its current form, the report and data only scratches the surface
of potential applications. Nonetheless, it is sufficiently informative to
serve as a starting point for a more in-depth dialogue among consumers,
business, and government about the near- and long-term uses of and
safeguards for nanotechnology in food and agriculture. Particularly, it
provides an early guidepost to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Environmental Protection Agency, and Food & Drug Administration."
"If nanotechnology is to succeed, we must have an open policy
discussion that is informed by a clear understanding of how products are
moving from laboratories and farms to factories and stores, and into
people's kitchens and environment. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
is committed to helping facilitate the necessary analysis and risk research
around nanotechnology agrifood to provide practical and sound policy
choices," according to Project Director Rejeski. The Project is an
initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Center and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and
manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one
billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. The
National Science Foundation predicts that the global market for goods and
services using nanotechnologies will grow to $1 trillion by 2015. The U.S.
invests approximately $3 billion annually in nanotechnology research and
development, which accounts for approximately one-third of the total public
and private sector investments worldwide.
The Kuzma and VerHage report, Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food
Production: Anticipated Applications, is available online, along with an
early webcast of their findings, at http://www.nanotechproject.org/50
Jennifer Kuzma, Ph.D., joined the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of
Public Affairs and the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy
(CSTPP) at the University of Minnesota in 2003. Prior to this, she served
for four years as program director and senior program officer at the
National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (NRC). She earned
her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder in
1995 and was subsequently a research fellow at the Rockefeller University
in the Laboratory for Plant Molecular Biology. She currently serves as
assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and as associate
director of the CSTPP.
Peter VerHage graduated from North Park University with degrees in
biology and in politics and government in 1999. He completed an M.S. degree
in science, technology, and environmental policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey
Institute at the University of Minnesota and was a research assistant at