Old food meets new technologies, leaves food for thought

February 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- There are big changes driven by small forces in two of the oldest industries of the U.S. economy - agriculture and agricultural production.

From the fields to the grocery store shelves, nanotechnology - technology that allows the control of unique, sub-molecular properties of matter - is revolutionizing the way food is produced, packaged and distributed, leaving many in the industry grappling with nanotechnology's numerous implications.

Michigan State University professors Sue Selke and John Stone are among a group of experts who will address questions surrounding the union of agriculture and nanotech during today's symposium, "What is Agrifood Technology?: Technical, Ethical, Legal and Social Questions," at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

Selke and Stone are from the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards.

"It's not just food. Everything from food-processing equipment to packaging and distribution systems are being affected by nanotechnology," Stone said. "Applications are found throughout the supply chain."

Selke points out that nanotechnology plays an important role in the packaging of agrifood products. For instance, the interiors of snack food packages are often coated with a shiny, nano-thin layer of aluminum.

"This aluminum layer is much thinner than a piece of tissue paper and is an effective and economically beneficial way for keeping oxygen from getting in and keeping moisture out," Selke said.

Nanotechnology also can be helpful in selecting ripe produce. Special sensors with nanotech components capable of detecting the ripeness and freshness of packaged produce are used in stores today.

The sensors work by measuring the concentrations of oxygen within the package. A marker on the exterior of the package turns color, indicating to buyers that the produce has ripened to perfection.

Similar sensors able to detect microbial concentrations growing in food, drugs and medical devices have the potential to improve safety.

Despite the potential benefits to agrifood producers, retailers and consumers, nanotechnology's applications in the food industry are a reason for concern for many.

Stone points out that privacy and control issues associated with agrifood and nanotechnology are likely to be among several hot-button issues.

Many companies store sensitive shipping and distribution information on chips which can be scanned and loaded onto computers and rendered insecure.

Also, there is the potential for the development of small environmental testing devices containing nanocomponents that may offer ordinary citizens the chance to monitor chemicals being emitted from a nearby factory or those being used on a local farm. Such advances likely would result in changing the power relationship in food and environmental politics.

"There are some people that just don't want it because nanotechnology is associated with risk, big companies, and some just don't like new technology," said Paul Thompson, MSU Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics. "People like to think of food as a warm old-fashion kind of thing."

Thompson organized the symposium with Larry Busch, University Distinguished Professor of sociology.

During the symposium, Stone will present a model for public collaboration with government and industry to lay the groundwork for more socially responsive agrifood nanotechnology.

He calls for an ethnographic approach to public engagement that builds on the collective experience of extension agents interacting with community members.

In this model, extension agents receive training on potential nanotechnology applications in food and agriculture and work at a grass-roots level to link public perceptions of risk and opportunity to agrifood policy makers and other stakeholder groups, Stone explained.
-end-
For photos, links and full coverage of MSU at AAAS, see http://special.newsroom.msu.edu/aaas/index.html.

NOTE: To contact any participants at while at the AAAS annual meeting Feb. 15-19, contact Sue Nichols on her cell phone at (517) 282-1093.

Michigan State University

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