Nanotechnology in the Agri-Food industry on the island of Ireland: applications, opportunities and challenges

Date: May, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-905767-45-8

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Background

Nanotechnology is simply the processing of material at a sub-microscopic level. The scale at which this occurs is infinitesimally small – a nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter – about one hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. The technology allows for the development of a whole range of highly desirable properties and functions and has already found a multitude of applications including engineering, metallurgy, medicine and the chemical and food industries. It is widely recognised that nanotechnology can bring significant benefits and nanotechnology research attracts significant funding from both private industry and governmental sources. In the area of food production and processing, nanotechnology has some current uses and a wide range of potential uses including the development of novel functional ingredients, nutrient delivery systems, safety testing, innovative and improved packaging, and traceability and authenticity verification.

The application of nanotechnology in the agri-food sector is still a relatively new concept. This is mainly due to issues relating to product labelling, a lack of unifying regulations and guidelines on nanotechnology governance, and uncertainties regarding side effects to consumer health and the environment. As with all new technologies, a concise determination of the potential risks will need to be undertaken to ensure that public and environmental concerns are addressed and any regulatory, ethical and policy challenges are met.

This report reviews nanotechnology applications, opportunities and challenges for the agri-food industry on the island of Ireland. The industry’s current level of awareness and perceptions of nanotechnology in relation to food and food-related applications was investigated through a qualitative survey of food industry personnel that was conducted through face-to-face and telephone interviews, and an online survey that was disseminated to a wide industrial target audience. The report also details the outcome of a literature review on the implications of applying nanotechnology to food production for consumer health, choice and confidence. Possible communications options that would foment trust and thereby underscore consumer confidence in the technology were also considered.