Nanotechnology, covering a broad array of innovations, is about the manipulation or self-assembly of individual atoms, molecules, or molecular clusters into structures to create materials and devices with new or vastly different properties. In Greek the word 'nano' means 'dwarf'. In technical terms nanotechnology encompasses materials and devices with functional structures between 1 and about 100 nanometres. A nanometre is a thousandth of a thousandth of a thousandth of a metre (10-9m) - about 60,000 times smaller than a human hair in diameter.
Allegedly nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the agricultural and food industry. Smart sensors could help the agricultural industry combat viruses and other crop pathogens through a more rapid disease detection. The use of alternative (renewable) energy supplies, and filters or catalysts to reduce pollution and clean-up existing pollutants could enhance environmental protection. There are also high expectations for ' smart delivery systems': nano capsules transporting pesticides, drugs or nutrients to be released at the exact spot (in plants, animals or human beings) where they are most functional and effective. Nanotechnology could pave the road to new food products as low fat milk, cheese, and ice cream that have the same taste as full fat products. That is why food and nutrition companies foresee a great deal of promise from nanotechnology in novel food products. By means of nanotechnology ingredients which naturally occur in food can be adapted for better taste, digestion or to address specific nutrition needs (e.g. babies, elderly or patients).
Issues and concerns
However, the application of this evolving technology may raise (further) concerns about issues such as food safety and ' naturalness'. Nano particles come close to the structure of natural barriers in nature and our body. It is still not clear what will happen when these particles cross these natural barriers. Consequently, both risk evaluation and consumer perceptions are issues to be addressed in the governance of the technology that differs from country to country. Although no widespread debate about nanotechnology is going on at this moment, it is by no means sure that new products or applications based on nanotechnology will be trusted by consumers.