By Peter Melchett
Listening to Lord Krebs speak of ‘low-calorie chocolate and beer that would never go flat’ last week, one could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu.
These were just some of the wonders that the former head of the Food Standards Agency informed us one could look forward to with the ‘explosive growth’ of the use of nanotechnology – dubbed ‘grey goo’ when it was first condemned by Prince Charles – in our food industry.
Not that the average consumer will be aware of the presence of these nanoparticles. Delivering the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology’s report on nanotechnology, Lord Krebs said he and other peers see no requirement for products containing these microscopic compounds to be labelled.
Nanotechnology involves whittling common materials down to the size of microscopic particles, allowing them to acquire unusual properties. Nanofood is food in which nanotechnology is used during its cultivation, production, processing or packaging. The techniques can be employed to reduce fat, salt or sugar levels, enrich food with supplements or sometimes extend a product’s shelf-life.
We have stood on the brink of this ‘brave new world’ of food technology before, when turkey twizzlers seemed the last word in sophistication and the future was full of the endless, still unfulfilled promises of the GM industry.
And it is a vision that has been rejected – vociferously – before, not least by leading scientists who advised the Government that the release of nanoparticles should be, ‘avoided as far as possible’.
As consumers we have already made our feelings known. Thanks in part to this paper’s campaigning, GM has been kept out of British food. As a nation, our whole approach to food has moved steadily away from the laboratory to the allotment.
There is growing support for local and seasonal food; food with no, or fewer, pesticides and additives; a desire to know who produced our food, how it was grown or reared and what, if anything, artificial it contains through clear labelling.
Yet still Lord Krebs believes that nanotech has a vital role to play in making our food ‘healthier and tastier’ and that the food industry’s job is to make sure the public accepts a ‘technology that is coming down the tracks’.
The truth is that there is little scientific understanding about how these substances affect living organisms, and initial studies show negative effects. Which is precisely why the select committee’s report must be used as a chance to review what we do, and what we do not, know about it.
That alone should be enough to convince most people that there is no place for nanoparticles in health and beauty products or food.
Giving evidence to the Lords committee, Vyvyan Howard, Professor of Bio-imaging at the University of Ulster, said that when materials are converted into artificially-small, mobile nanoparticles, they become more mobile within the body. Nanoparticles can get through cell walls in the same way viruses do.
Most worryingly, research has demonstrated that if you expose animals or humans to nanoparticles, the particles can travel through the body, crossing things such as the blood-brain barrier which has evolved to keep molecules that we do not want out of our brains. In this way, Professor Howard says, nanoparticles can act as a Trojan horse, allowing potentially damaging chemicals into vulnerable areas of our bodies.
It is not too alarmist to suggest that the consequences could be fatal. There is a series of diseases called ‘protein misfolding diseases’, mostly occurring in the central nervous system, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spongiform encephalopathy.
If we are exposed to large doses of nanomaterials, and they are able to get into areas like the brain, Prof Howard believes they might be able to increase the rate of protein misfolding diseases.
There is now, he says, ‘firm evidence that some engineered nanoparticles entering intravenously or via lungs can reach the brains of small animals’. That alone should be enough to convince us that there is no place for nanoparticles in health and beauty products or food.
Indeed, last year we learned that nanoparticles added to sun creams are being investigated for just such links. Of the £5.5billion invested in nanotechnology globally each year, much goes into the development of cosmetics and health products.
The Government’s failure to follow scientific advice and regulate nanotech products is inexcusably negligent.
But although the risks are known, and have been widely acknowledged by the most eminent scientific bodies, the Washington-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has found that there are currently 84 foods or food-related products that use nanotechnology.
The food industry says none is manufactured in the UK, but with no labelling required, we simply cannot know. We may already be eating them – as the Lords committee admits, ‘we are not clear what is out there in use at the moment’.
Five years ago, when top scientists advised in the strongest possible terms to avoid the use of nanoparticles, the Government acknowledged the risk but took no action.
Two years ago, the Soil Association banned the use of man-made nanomaterials from all our certified organic health and beauty products and textiles, as well as organic food. We are the first organisation in the world to take this action to safeguard public health.
It is the continued drive towards nanotechnology that is outdated. Scientists working for big food companies started developing their nanotech ideas many years ago. Then it was still possible to believe that the future of food would be high-tech, that fast food would soon simply involve swallowing a little pink pill.
Nanotech food was part of a nightmarish vision for the future of global farming and food. Some thought that GM and nanotechnology were the keys to overcoming the multiple problems of falling yields from artificial fertiliser and pesticide-laden crops, continuing hunger and starvation, obesity and an increasing scarcity of the raw materials, such as oil, on which nonorganic food depends.
Food would be brewed in vast vats using GM ingredients, with added nanotech nutrients and vitamins. Scientists believed that the world could continue dramatic increases in dairy and meat consumption, even if the milk and steaks of the future actually came from laboratories, not cows.
Indeed, this vision relies on the greatest possible disconnection between farming and the public. That is why GM companies like Monsanto consistently oppose labelling of GM food, and why the Lords’ report says that while consumers can expect to have access to information about the food they eat, ‘blanket labelling of nanomaterials on packages is not, in our view, the right approach to providing information about the application of nanotechnologies’.
We already know that this is the case with nanotechnology. In this the public’s gut instincts are right and should be heeded.