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What's wrong with a little nano-titanium dioxide on your oranges?

As the commercialization of nanotechnology in agriculture and food is rapidly deployed—e.g., in new pesticides—a dearth of information leaves consumers and regulators in the dark regarding affects on health and the environment.

Used under creative commons license from micamonkey

Nanotech holds lots of promises: products that are stronger, lighter and longer lasting; food packaging that can detect, and more effectively resist, bacteria. All of this amazing potential has industry chomping at the bit—already, 1,300 products now on the market claim to implement Engineered Nanomaterials (ENMs) in some way. The problem? Not one of these 1,300 has been through pre-market testing to determine the effect of ENMs on public health, worker safety or the environment. In a new report, "Racing Ahead: Racing Ahead: U.S. Agri-Nanotechnology in the Absence of Regulation," IATP's Dr. Steve Suppan addresses the broad lack of regulation and oversight of nanotech applications in food and agriculture.

On June 9, the FDA and EPA released draft, voluntary guidance to industry as the first step towards requiring companies to submit ENM data for regulatory review. The same day, the White House issued an executive memorandum on principles of regulation and oversight of nanomaterials. While this step is encouraging, there is so much more to be done—especially as related to the application of nanomaterials in food and agriculture. According to the report: 

ENM residues that could not be washed away by consumers in nano-coated produce are already reportedly being exported from Latin America to the U.S., without pre-market safety assessment or regulation.

Currently, if a product is deemed safe in normal use (macro-scale), they can incorporate its nano-sized (the diameter of a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers) counterpart into products without reporting it to the FDA. With even the minimal academic research that has been conducted, it's clear that this lack of oversight is cause for concern. In one study, cited in the report:

Chinese researchers discovered in animal testing that absorption of nano-silver may interfere with the replication of DNA molecules and can reroute molecular networks that could create genetic mutations. Nano-silver, among myriad other uses, is incorporated into food packaging materials to kill pathogenic bacteria and thereby extend a food’s shelf life.

Read the entire report, or see the press release for more. To hear from Dr. Steve Suppan on the current state of nanotech in the U.S., listen to our latest episode of the Radio Sustain podcast.