Nanotechnology – the manipulation of particles at microscopic levels – is being used in food additives, colourings and packaging, and governments are ignoring the risks, according to Georgia Miller, co-ordinator of the Friends of the Earth Nanotechnology Project. Multinationals such as Kraft, Nestlé and Unilever all have active nano-research programmes but are not legally obliged to inform anyone when they move them into commercial use. Miller reckons that regulators are being outpaced by the commercialization of nano-foods: ‘Three and a half years ago, the Royal Society [the world’s oldest scientific institution] demanded rigorous safety tests, but nano-particles are still being treated in the same way as larger particles. Yet they are more potent and can more easily penetrate our bodies’ cells.’ Thus elements like iron or zinc, which are beneficial to our diets and often used in health supplements, may become toxic at the nano level.

Aside from personal health issues, nanotechnology raises social questions. Agribusiness is harnessing the science to make more potent fertilizers and pesticides, and Miller believes this could lead to a new automated, remote system of farm management whereby agro-chemicals ‘know’ when to release their contents in response to specific climatic conditions. Such developments will undoubtedly harm small farmers already struggling to survive.

Hear Georgia Miller on Radio New Internationalist’s programme Not So Super-markets.