September 1, 2015

Could Nanotechnology Benefit Your Business?

Nanotechnology was a subject of interest at the recent International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) conference in Portland, OR.  While research on this technology began about a decade ago, recent developments hold particular promise for the fresh produce industry.

In the not-so-distant future, applications of nanomaterials may allow us to increase crop yields without expanding land use or inputs.  Also, nanotechnology may soon allow us to inactivate pathogens without compromising the quality of our fresh produce.  With its broad array of potential applications on the farm and in the processing plant, nanotechnology is an emerging field that requires our immediate and continuing attention.

Nanotechnology may still be unfamiliar to many people, but the term simply refers to any type of science, engineering or technology that is conducted at a nanoscale.  How big is a nanoscale?  The unit of measurement used in nanotechnology—nanometers—is so small that it cannot be seen with a regular microscope.  To put its size into perspective, a freckle on your face one millimeter wide is equal to one million nanometers.  Because of the size of nanomaterials, they behave differently than their full-sized counterparts, making it possible to enhance the properties associated with such materials.  A number of different fields are exploring the use of nanotechnology, including medicine, biotechnology, energy, cosmetics, aeronautics and agriculture.

The tremendous potential of nanotechnology has attracted considerable resources into research and development.  Since 2001, the U.S. government has invested $22 billion into nanotechnology research.  In 2014, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—an agency within USDA—announced $3.8 million in grants to universities to study the role of nanotechnology in food security, food safety, nutrition and environmental protection.

Many researchers are exploring the use of nanotechnology in the agricultural sector.  Current trends point to the efficacy of nanotechnology in the areas such as disease management and crop protection.  While specific applications are still uncertain, nanomaterials in agriculture aim to reduce the use of chemicals in plant protection, enhance the absorption of nutrients in fertilization and increase yields through more efficient water and nutrient management.  The benefits of nanotechnology as diagnostic devices and in the field of plant breeding are also being explored.

Furthermore, current research from several universities holds promise for impactful outcomes in other areas, including reducing the risks related to foodborne pathogens.  A recent research project conducted by Harvard’s Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology revealed that Engineered Water Nanostructures (EWNS), tiny water nanodroplets generated by electrospraying of water, possess unique properties that have the ability to inactivate pathogens by destroying their membrane.  In the study, EWNS was demonstrated to be effective against E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.  The researchers, Drs. Georgios Pyrgiotakis and Pallavi Vedantam, believe this technology can not only significantly decrease the prevalence of foodborne pathogens but also extend the shelf life of fresh produce.  Currently, they are evaluating where this technology may be deployed and assessing the scalability of this technology to operational levels.  While the final outcome remains to be seen, this use of nanotechnology holds significant potential for the fresh produce industry.

Another novel approach to applying nanotechnology to the agriculture industry involves using nanomaterials as regulators of crop growth.  In her recent study, Dr. Mariya Khnodakovskaya of the University of Arkansas demonstrated that carbon-based nanomaterials can activate seed germination and plant growth resulting in higher yields.  While further research is required, including studying the long-term impacts of consuming plants exposed to carbon-based nanomaterials, Dr. Khnodakovskaya’s findings may be a significant factor in the “growing more with less” équation.

Developing a better understanding of nanotechnology and its long-term effects is a top priority for many government agencies and university researchers.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently monitoring nanotechnology developments and is working to ensure that there is a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.  To ensure the protection of the public health, FDA performs safety assessments for nanotechnology as part of its evaluation process.  The agency has also created a Nanotechnology Task Force charged with determining regulatory approaches that encourage the continued development of innovative, safe, and effective FDA-regulated products utilizing nanotechnology materials.

Do you see nanotechnology as part of the future of your business?  Is nanotechnology a game changer if economically feasible?  Join this conversation by providing your comments and feedback to our blog: