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Government & Policy

April 17, 2006
Volume 84, Number 16
p. 31

Nanotechnology In Food And Agriculture

Database finds diverse themes and predominantly basic research in federally funded R&D

Susan R. Morrissey

Nanotechnology has applications in a broad range of areas. For instance, it's being applied in medicine, materials science, and even food and agricultural science. Its application in the last area, dubbed agrifood nanotech, is the focus of a new database released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C.

As part of a larger study to analyze early-stage agrifood nanotechnology R&D, the database includes publicly available data on federally funded research projects. The resulting collection of 160 R&D projects provides information on the federal portfolio in this area, estimates areas and time frames for commercialization, and includes preliminary risk-and-benefit analyses of the projects.

Photo by David Hawxhurst/Wilson Center

Architects Kuzma discusses the new agrifood nanotech R&D database at a press briefing as VerHage looks on.

"This database is a starting point to understanding what types of research and development work is being done," explains Jennifer Kuzma, associate director of the Center for Science, Technology & Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. Kuzma and her research assistant Peter VerHage developed and populated the database. "It's a way to get the conversation started about what's going on in this area," she says.

According to Kuzma, focusing the database on agrifood nanotech R&D, as opposed to commercial products in this area, allows regulators and researchers to take "a forward-looking approach to understanding what products might be coming down the pipeline and what their potential risks and benefits might be." This information can then be used by federal agencies to develop appropriate oversight ahead of the commercialized product, she explains.

"We are in a unique position where foresight can pay off," says David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. He notes that according to a recent Wilson Center nanotech consumer products inventory, which includes manufacturer-identified consumer products, only a relatively small number of agrifood nanotech products are on the market (C&EN, March 20, page 32).

"There is still time for regulatory policies to catch up with nanotechnology, but it won't be easy," agrees Patrick Lin, research director of the Nanoethics Group, a nonpartisan think tank that is concerned about the ethical and societal impacts of nanotechnology. He notes that both the Wilson Center's agrifood nanotech R&D database and the consumer nanotech product database "represent a good first step toward a more open and informed dialogue about where nanotechnology has been and where it is going, which enables people to plan ahead."

To populate the agrifood nanotech R&D database, Kuzma and VerHage searched for federally funded research projects active from 2000 through the fall of 2005 that contained the words "nanotechnology" and "food" or "agriculture." They focused their search on the websites of the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Defense, and Homeland Security, as well as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. They also included relevant patent application information for the same time frame from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office website.

They categorized projects they found into research areas according to a 2003 USDA report titled "Nanoscale Science and Engineering for Agriculture and Food Systems." The database listing includes information about where a product falls in the food chain, who would be exposed to any resulting products, and any known toxicity information. A risk-and-benefit analysis also was done for each project, but Kuzma cautions that this analysis is a "first-pass, qualitative ranking" that should be reevaluated as more data become available.

"We found that the majority of the projects fell in the areas of food packaging and pathogen and contaminant detection," Kuzma says, but adds that there were still diverse themes. Another area that is well-represented is R&D on environmental issues and agricultural waste.

Kuzma, however, was surprised to find little R&D activity in the areas of raw-commodities transportation or identity preservation and tracking. She qualifies this conclusion by noting that the database captures only publicly funded R&D and that "there may be a lot going on in industry in these areas."

"The agrifood database confirms that basic research is still ongoing," Lin says. "It also confirms that nanotechnology labs may be deliberately avoiding the kind of research that has been the source of controversy for the biotech industry; that is, modifying the food itself," he points out, adding that there is a fine line between nanotech and biotech and that nanotech may face some of the same negative perceptions that have plagued biotech in relation to food and agriculture.

Kuzma, with the support of the Wilson Center, will now begin the second phase of the study. For this phase, a few case studies will be selected from the R&D database for more detailed, qualitative risk-and-benefit analysis. The third and final phase will be an overall evaluation of the existing agrifood nanotech regulations.

Chemical & Engineering News
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