Report

Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production: Anticipated Applications

The U.S. government is investing in nanotech agrifood as a part of its annual $1.2 billion nanotechnology research budget. 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, this 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.”

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies on PewHealth.org.