In my Sept. 25, 2013 posting I highlighted a then upcoming Guardian-hosted ‘nanotechnology and food’ panel discussion titled, Should we use nanotechnology to feed ourselves? The discussion has since taken place and resulted in a report (Oct. 22, 2013 ?) written by Penny Sarchet and posted on the Guardian website space devoted to Nanofutures, a specially commissioned section which is sponsored by NanOpinion, an EU-funded (European Union) project (from the posted report),
Alok Jha, (Chair), science and environment correspondent, the Guardian
Kathy Groves, food microscopist, Leatherhead Food Research
Terry Jones, director of communications, Food and Drink Federation
Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth [FoE]
Ordinarily, the chair or the moderator is separated out from the list of panelists. I’m not sure if it’s a formatting issue or if Ian Illuminato’s name is being given special significance; this is never made clear in the report. On a related note, here’s a question for you, which one of these panelist’s employers is different from the others?
Illuminato’s employer, Friends of the Earth (FoE), describes itself this way (from the About Us page) Note: A link has been removed,
Friends of the Earth strives for a more healthy and just world. We understand that the challenges facing our planet call for more than half measures, so we push for the reforms that are needed, not merely the ones that are politically easy. Sometimes, this involves speaking uncomfortable truths to power and demanding more than people think is possible. It’s hard work. But the pressures facing our planet and its people are too important for us to compromise.
We are members of Friends of the Earth International, a global network representing more than two million activists in 74 different countries. …
Groves’s employer, Leatherhead Food Research, describes itself this way (from the About Us page),
Founded in 1919, Leatherhead Food Research has been a trusted partner to the food industry for nearly a century, offering an unparalleled breadth and depth of experience to help the food industry innovate and evolve.
Our Members and clients represent a who’s who of the global food and beverage market – ranging from large multi-nationals to SMEs, and including ingredient suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and foodservice businesses. Leatherhead Food Research has a unique Membership that includes over 1500 food and drinks companies worldwide.
Leatherhead Food Research offers services including market intelligence, food research and analysis, food legislation, business and technical information and training. Additionally, we can deliver bespoke consulting and research services to both Members and non-Member organisations.
Jones’s employer, Food and Drink Federation, describes itself this way (from the Who we are page),
The Food and Drink Federation is the voice of the UK food and drink industry, the largest manufacturing sector in the country.
Our sector directly employs up to 400,000 people, and as many as 1.2 million in ancillary services; it accounts for 16% of the UK’s total manufacturing sector by value; and it is an invaluable partner to British agriculture, buying two thirds of what farmers produce. Our membership comprises manufacturers of all sizes as well as trade associations dealing with specific sectors of the industry.
Formatting aside, it’s clear the organizers were trying to represent more than one position with the industry types being ‘pro’ nanotechnology in food and the lone civil society rep representing the ‘con’ position, in a moderate fashion (i”ll get back to ‘moderate’ in a moment).
Here are some excerpts from the report,
A recent Guardian seminar [Should we use nanotechnology to feed ourselves?], sponsored by the European Commission, met to debate how we will continue to feed the world, and the panellists – Terry Jones, Kathy Groves and Ian Illuminato, chaired by Alok Jha – considered how important nanotechnology is likely to be in this task. Their opinions were listened to by members of an invited public audience, who were also able to put questions to the panel.
The current use of nanotechnology in the food industry is still in its early stages and generally builds upon longstanding processes and practices in food production. Jones, however, says it is clear that nanotechnology might provide solutions to a range of industry problems.
“You could see nanotechnology used in the cultivation, production, processing or packaging of food,” he said. “It could be used to develop new food products or, indeed, improve existing ones.”
As well as reducing water use and contamination in food processing, Jones believes nanotechnology could help make food healthier.
These ideas sound ambitious and all-encompassing, but, in reality, the current use of nanotechnology in food production is limited. An often-cited contemporary example is nanosalt, smaller grains of salt that provide better coverage of a plate of chips while reducing the overall amount of salt used. So far, however, it has been slow to catch on.
This reluctance to accept nanotechnological tinkering in the food industry is shared by Illuminato, of campaign group Friends of the Earth. He believes that many questions about nanotechnology remain to be answered and, until they have been, it is sensible to be cautious.
“Nanoparticles can be more chemically reactive, they can have greater access to our bodies than larger particles, and when they become more bio-available there’s a question of whether that also introduces new toxicity risks,” said Illuminato.
He is concerned that, because of their extremely small size, nanoparticles might interfere with DNA or be able to cross the human placenta and blood-brain barriers. “I’m not somebody who thinks technology is malicious – I think it’s humans that put that on to the technology,” said Illuminato. [emphasis mine] “It’s how we manage these things that’s going to be important.”
There’s no indication as to what the 25 audience members thought about the session although Hilary Sutcliffe of Matter was quoted,
Audience member Hilary Sutcliffe, director of the Matter think tank on responsible innovation, was keen to emphasise the limits of nanotechnology in food. “If we’re really lucky, we might get nanosalt and a couple of nano-encapsulated vitamins that go in products,” she told the panel, describing her disappointment in the progress of nanotechnology in food to date.
Sutcliffe explained that these limited applications are expensive and not that useful: manufacturers would rather just reduce salt content than pay for nanosalt, and vitamins and flavourings do not need to be nano-encapsulated because they can be added to foods at the microscale, rather than at the nano-level, which is one thousand times smaller.
She also suggested that, so far, the possible uses of nanotechnology have only been in Western diets and that people should be realistic about its use for tackling the impending global food crisis. “Nothing about nanotechnology is in relation to anything except Western, expensive foods that are slightly gratuitous and not particularly necessary,” she said, before adding that it is not currently helping to feed the world. “If you are going to talk about feeding the world, be brave, take on GM, let’s have that discussion.”
All in all, it seems the panel discussion was an interesting exercise although I’m not sure what it was in aid of. Perhaps that will become more clear with the passage of time.
Finally, getting back to Illuminato and the FoE’s moderate position. This signals a distinct change in tone since the days when FoE engaged in a relentless campaign against nanosunscreens and since the debacle in Australia (described in my Feb. 5, 2012 posting). While this news release head suggests the ‘old’ FoE campaign, the text doesn’t distort the research, as far as I know, (from the FoE March 5, 2013 news release),
Tests reveal potentially toxic titanium dioxide in sunscreen and cosmetics
Today, Friends of the Earth U.S. and Australia revealed new testing results from the Australian Government’s National Measurement Institute, which found that many popular sunscreen and cosmetic products are using a potentially hazardous form of a common ingredient — anatase titanium dioxide. Six of the eight products tested, including well-known brands such as Nivea (Beiersdorf AG (BEIG.DE)), L’Oreal SA (OREP.PA), and CoverGirl (Procter & Gamble Co (NYSE:PG)), were found to contain this ingredient.
“The product we are most concerned about is Nivea Sun ‘Kids Swim and Play’ sunscreen, since independent analysis of the test results by Uniquest found that more than 90 percent of the particles extracted from the product were nanoparticles. (note 1) Due to their large relative surface area, nanoparticles of anatase titanium dioxide are much more reactive than larger particles of the chemical. Protecting our skin from the sun is no joke, and sunscreens are an important part of staying safe from harmful UV rays. On the other hand, some sunscreens may not be as effective and safe as we think,” said Ian Illuminato, health and environment campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S.
Some skin cancers are linked to UV-induced free radical damage to the skin, which is why wearing sunscreens with strong broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection is recommended by medical authorities. However, recent studies have shown that the anatase form of titanium dioxide (and in particular nano-scale anatase titanium dioxide) can increase the formation of free radicals when exposed to sunlight and water and a number of scientists have questioned the safety of their use in sunscreens and other skin products. Anatase is an aggressive free radical producer compared to rutile, another less reactive form of titanium dioxide used in sunscreens, cosmetics and other products.
In 2008, a peer reviewed study found that nano anatase titanium dioxide in sunscreen was reacting with sunlight and breaking down the coating on steel roofing in a matter of weeks. This study was prompted by reports that coatings on roofs were breaking down in places where workers had inadvertently transferred sunscreen to roofs via skin contact. Researchers from the 2008 study found that this sunscreen ingredient increased the normal rate of sun damage to the roofs by 100 times. (note 2) The study raised serious concerns about the impact these ingredients may be having on our skin. In 2010, Italian scientists warned that anatase titanium dioxide is “capable of destroying virtually any organic matter.” (note 3)
I’ve highlighted the carefully worded injunction to use sunscreens as they are important to your safety. As I recall, prior to the debacle, FoE didn’t make the effort.
For anyone curious about FoE and distorted research, I have a July 20, 2010 posting about it, which also links you to Dr. Andrew Maynard’s postings where he challenged and discussed FoE’s anti nanosunscreen campaigns : (Just how risky could nanoparticles in sunscreens be?) and The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections. Unfortunately, since FoE played fast and loose on the nanosunscreen issue, I have persistent doubts about all their advocacy efforts.
As for the research about anatase and rutile forms of nano titanium dioxide mentioned in in FoE’s March 2013 news release, I have only recently noted this in my blog (Oct. 3,2013 posting). Somehow I missed the research in Australia.