Nanofood, Nanotech & Nanites: Quantum Effects & Critical Choices?
London, UK - 17th January 2010, 23:23 GMT
Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends
[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]
An increasing amount of food product across the world is becoming nanofood. Ordinary food becomes nanofood when nanotechnology techniques or tools are used during its cultivation, production, processing or packaging. Nanofood does not necessarily mean atomically modified food or food produced by nanomachines. We may or may not want it, but the food industry does. Nanofood and nanofood packaging are already with us because the food industry has spotted the chance for huge profits. Every major food corporation has been investing in nanofood for many years. Several hundred companies around the world are now active in nanofood research and development. USA is the world leader in nanofoods followed by Japan, Europe and China. At present, Asia -- with more than 50 percent of the world population -- is the biggest market for nanofood, with China in the lead. The business is worth around USD 20 billion annually and growing exponentially.
A multi-national processed-food giant and a group of research laboratories are busy working towards 'smart food'. For example, a colourless, tasteless drink that consumers design after they've bought it. They decide what colour and flavour the drink will be, and what nutrients it will have in it, once they get home by zapping the product with a correctly-tuned microwave. This activates nano-capsules -- each one about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair -- containing the necessary chemicals for the choice of drink: tropical orange-coloured, exotic mango-flavoured with a touch of stimulants and omega- 3, 6 and 9 oils, for example. The selected chemicals will dissolve while all the other possible ingredients will pass through our body unused, in their nano-capsules. Hundreds of nanofood applications are in different stages of development and deployment worldwide and many of them are on the market already.
Nanotechnology is now being deployed in food production, processing, preservation, flavour and colour improvement, hygiene, safety and packaging. A large European chemical firm produces a nano-scale version of carotenoids, a class of food additives, which it sells to major food and beverage companies worldwide for use in lemonades, fruit juices and margarines. Nanomaterials include nanocomposites, nanoclays, nanotubes... nanosensors, nanoimaging and nanochips... as well as nanofilters. Nano delivery systems utilise nanocapsules, nanocochleates, nanoballs... nanodevices, nanomachines and nanites.
Nanites, nanobots, nanoids or nanomites are used to describe nanorobots. Nanorobotics is the technology of creating machines or robots at or close to the microscopic scale of a nanometre: 10 to power of -9 metres. More specifically, nanorobotics refers to the nanotechnology engineering discipline of designing and building nanorobots, devices ranging in size from 0.1-10 micrometres and constructed of nanoscale or molecular components.
What happens if a human is administered nanites in injection form that alters neurological or biological processes? What could be done to deactivate the nanite's function? How can one destroy the "little computers" without hurting the human being?
Given that nanorobotics is an emerging field there is little understanding of nanites at present. Usually nanites are controlled via some mechanism such as a wireless electric, magnetic, electromagnetic field or a chemical reaction. They can be activated and deactivated via control mechanisms. Unless they run amok.
Nanofood is natural, the large corporate players insist. It uses no new substances, just the same ones, but much smaller. Other scientists in the field disagree. Why? Matter has completely different behaviour at nano-scales. For example, it starts displaying quantum effects. That means completely different risks may be associated with it. The size question is not peripheral, it is central. Nano particles under 100 nano-metres wide -- less than the size of a virus -- have unique abilities. They can cross the body's natural barriers, entering into cells or through the liver into the bloodstream or even through the cell wall surrounding the brain. Here are some examples of unique behaviour at the nano scale for ordinary materials:
. Aluminium is stable in the 'big world' but explosive at nano-levels;
. Carbon nano-structures that are now used in electronics have been shown to be highly toxic if released into the environment;
. Some metals kill bacteria at nano-scale -- hence the interest in using them in food packaging -- but what happens if they get off the packaging and into us?
Food is fundamental. So, what is there to be afraid of, from nano-technology that offers so much promise: healthier food; fewer, better targeted chemicals; less waste; 'smart' food and packaging; and the possibility of a technological solution to the problem of one billion people who don't get enough to eat? Nanofood proponents hold the view that nanotechnology is able to solve a variety of problems in the food industry by:
. Enabling increases in productivity and cost-effectiveness;
. Providing better food processing, packaging and logistics;
. Helping in the design of new healthier and tastier products; and
. Providing better food safety and quality assurance.
Simply put, we don't know what the nanofood risks are and the current regulations on the introduction of new food processes do not take them into account adequately. This is why the UK's Royal Society has expressed concerns over the lack of research into the health implications of free nano particles being introduced into our environment. Very little risk assessment appears to have been done in the nanofood area, even on some products that have already entered the market.
After the well documented public debates over genetically modified and engineered organisms (GMO and GEO), mad cow disease and swine flu, consumer faith remains low, not just in the food and pharmaceutical industries but also the food and drugs regulators. The mechanisms to make nanofood transparent must be put in place and enshrined swiftly. These need to be based on nanofood principles that the public can easily understand and track via clear information and labelling.
According to many food regulators and bioethicists across major countries, vast gaps in regulating nanotechnology exist at present. It is our choice whether we get involved to make sure that we:
1. Narrow and close the vast gaps;
2. Look at the broader issues below the surface; and
3. Identify the best way to deploy bio-, genetic-, nano-, low-tech, no-tech and social measures (individually or as a combination);
in the unfolding revolution associated with scientific and technological innovation of nanofood, nano-nutrients and nano-medication.
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