Nanotechnology presents the possibility of environmental and human pollution and the potential for harm to be caused by meddling with the food chain.
For many years there have been concern about chemicals added to foods to enhance color, flavor, and shelf life. There has also been concern over the use of genetic modifications to crops and to increase yields and disease resistance. But there is a less heard of, multi-billion dollar industry which is gaining an ever increasing foothold in the market and in the imaginations of the corporate, profit-obsessed food industry.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials on a scale of less than 100 nanometres (nm). To put that into perspective a human hair is 80,000nm across. These technologies are able to change materials on an atomic level, allowing the scientists to create materials and devices that have never been possible before. According to industry experts, the foods of the future will be able to be wrapped in smart packaging that can detect spoilage and release chemical agents to prevent further spoilage. The nanoparticles can be designed to allow tracking of food from farm to plate, and some particles will be able to tailor food to have the properties and nutrients that the marketing companies wish to sell. This means that there could be junk food made with nanotechnology that will be able to claim that it cleans your arteries when you eat it.
Billions invested in new research
The main areas of nanotechnology research at the moment are the modification of seeds and fertilizers, fortification of foods, smart foods, smart packaging and food tracking. It is estimated that over $30 billion have been invested in research so far.
Modification of seeds at this level goes beyond what is possible with genetic engineering where genes are transferred from crop to crop. Nanotechnology allows atoms to be changed within the structures of materials to facilitate the exact outcomes that the manufacturer wants. Bigger corn, disease resistant potatoes, even a tomato that tastes like an apple are all feasible if there is a market for the creation of it. Modification of fertilizers means that the fertilizer can be tailored to the crop in ways that Monsanto have only previously dreamed of. The fertilizer or pesticide could protect their own brand of crop but destroy other crops; this would be in addition to the already devastating effects of GM crops on the plant-life that exists nearby.
Fortification of foods means that particles can be engineered into foods that will release chemical agents into the consumer. This could be nutrients, vitamins, minerals or pharmaceuticals.
Smart foods and smart packaging would allow the manufacturer to engineer an eating experience based on what the nanoparticles detect. For example, if the nanoparticles detect that the consumer has high sodium levels, then higher levels of salt can be released so that the food tastes more in line with what the consumer is accustomed to. Also the food can contain tracking particles that receive or emit radio signals which would allow data on what foods the consumer eats to be beamed to the TV in your living room which would then tailor the adverts to the consumer.
The possibilities of nanotechnology do not end with these areas of research. However, the possible environmental and human pollution via the food chain is a concern to all who know that a natural diet of organic food is the only thing that we should eat as a species. The potential for harm to be caused by meddling with the food chain is already being realized in areas which have seen the introduction of GM crops and the associated pesticides.