The GoNano project is built on the assumption that nanotechnologies are more likely to gain broad acceptance if they take public values and concerns into account at early stages of innovation. To test this hypothesis, GoNano will organise co-creation processes in different areas of nanotechnological application (Food, Health, and Energy), combining online consultations, face-to-face citizen engagement and stakeholder workshops. See the general introduction to GoNano for further information about our overall approach.
The co-creation process in the food area will be led by our Czech partner, the Technology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences (TC CAS). TC CAS will organise a series of citizen and stakeholder workshops in the Czech Republic to gauge public attitudes and feed these insights into ongoing research and innovation in the food area.
Nano and food
There are many possible applications of nanotechnology along the food production chain. In food processing for example, nanoparticles can be used to improve the taste, texture and nutritional value of our food. Food packaging is another area of application: antimicrobial coatings can help keep packaged food stay fresh longer, or signalling molecules could provide a warning signal when food has been contaminated. In agriculture, nanoparticles could enable more targeted delivery of chemicals, reducing the use of pesticides or fertilizers. The capacity to engineer single molecules also opens up new possibilities in the area of ‘functional foods’: foodstuffs specifically designed to deliver health benefits to those who eat them. And these are just a few examples of the potential nanotechnology applications in the food area currently being researched. For a more detailed overview of nanotechnology applications in food, see for example the book Nanotechnology Applications in Food, edited by Alexandru Grumezescu and Alexandra Oprea. A good article about nano and food from The Guardian: what you need to know about nano-food.
For all its opportunities, the application of nanotechnologies in food isn’t without its challenges. Determining food safety is one such challenge. Food is a strictly regulated area, so the acceptance of new food products and processes relies on extensive safety testing. But as the behaviour of nanoparticles in all their different shapes and forms and their interaction with the human body is not yet fully understood, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions with respect to their safety. Despite intense nanosafety research in recent years, even the risk of ‘ordinary’ nanoparticles such as nanosilica in food productive is inconclusive. This holds even stronger for newly engineered nanoparticles that can be expected to enter the market as nanotechnologies research advances.
It is difficult to determine the current role of nanotechnologies in food production. The Woodrow Wilson Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory currently lists 118 products in its Food and Beverage category: http://www.nanotechproject.org/cpi/browse/categories/food-and-beverage/ , but there may be more. Partly due to concerns over how the public might react, food industry has been cautious about linking nanotechnologies with their food products.
This suggests that public attitudes towards nanotechnologies are also important determinants for the introduction of nanotechnologies in food production. Indeed, a public survey from the European project NanoDiode found that European citizens generally welcome nanotechnologies, but are more cautious when it is applied in food and cosmetics. The uneasy relationship between technological innovation and food consumption is confirmed in other studies on public perceptions of technology like the recent Eurobarometer study on public opinion on future innovations, science and technology (pdf).
Public perceptions are not just determined by the absence of quantifiable risk, but by underlying moral and political considerations as well. Apart from the question: “is it safe?”, deeper questions about the role of technology in our society play a role. For example, should we rely on technological innovation to fight the imminent global diabetes epidemic (by producing healthier mayonnaise for example), or should we focus our attention to simply eating less mayonnaise?
The Technology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences (TC CAS) will organise a series of citizen and stakeholder workshops in the Czech Republic to gauge public attitudes, and to feed these insights into ongoing research and innovation in the food area. Two other GoNano partners, The University of Twente (UT), and the European Office of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology RMIT, will run parallel co-creation processes in the area of Health and Energy, respectively.