About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

IATP Web sites

About Think Forward

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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October 14, 2010

Nanotech organic?

The idea that engineered nanomaterials (involving the manipulation of materials at the molecular level) would be allowed in certified organic food production seems ludicrous on its face. Allowing nanotechnology would seemingly destroy the credibility of the organic label with consumers. Yet, the National Organic Standards Board Materials Committee issued a proposal for public comment recently requesting that the USDA's National Organic Program hold a symposium on whether nanotechnology in organic production is "possible, practical and legal."

In a comment to the National Organic Standards Board sent earlier this week, IATP's Steve Suppan takes issue with the assumption that federal regulators can effectively regulate engineered nanomaterials in food production—meaning, any kind of food production, organic or not. The nanotech industry has been reluctant to submit product data on the environmental, safety and health effects of nanomaterials in food production. Currently, there are no requirements that the industry submit such data before nanoproducts enter the market. And in fact, according to an explosive report from AOL News earlier this year, they already have already entered the marketplace without regulatory oversight.

Steve writes, "Food processing and agribusiness firms engaged in nanotechnology research, sometimes in cooperation with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, have not submitted to regulatory authorities the food and agri-nanotechnology data required to carry out risk assessment to develop standards. [...] USDA's National Organic Program, rather than joining FDA in assuming that food and agri-nanotechnology can be regulated under current authority, should adopt a presumptive prohibiltion on ENMs (engineered nanomaterials) in products that meet the organic standard."

You can read IATP's full comment to the NOSB here.

Ben Lilliston

August 05, 2010

Food safety on the cheap

While billions of dollars are invested each year by food and agriculture companies in developing new technologies, only a small fraction is invested in ensuring food safety, writes IATP's Steve Suppan in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor.

The latest example of this unfortunate practice is the enormous investments being made in developing new food and agriculture applications for nanotechnology: the manipulation of molecular level matter. Governments and companies are developing nanotech applications in food packaging, plant production, animal breeding and food appearance, without establishing or investing in any clear system to ensure safety.

The Global Food Safety Monitor reports from this summer's NanoAgri 2010 conference in São Pedro, Brazil, where over 300 scientists and a handful of regulators and nongovernmental organizations discussed the latest nanotech applications and national and international regulatory issues.

The Monitor reports, "For governments hoping that nanotechnologies will create a new generation of jobs and wealth, product development, and not development of environmental, health and safety data about nanotechnologies, is the priority."

Ben Lilliston

May 24, 2010

Nanotech and the oil spill

As BP and government agencies struggle to stem the devastating flow of oil now hitting the Louisiana coast, there is growing desperation to find a solution—and fast. Green Earth Technologies, Inc. (GET) is seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to disperse manufactured nanoparticles in the Gulf of Mexico to remedy the oil spill. IATP and more than a dozen other organizations think this is a bad idea.

In a letter organized by Friends of the Earth, IATP and others urged EPA to deny approval of this project. Manufactured nanoscale chemicals measure less than 300 nanometers. A human hair is about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers. The large surface to volume ratio of nanoparticles is supposed to prevent the oil from coagulating and then being carried by ocean currents to damage coastal areas. The problem is that nanoparticles have been found to be toxic to humans, mammals and aquatic life. Manufactured nanoparticles can travel up the food chain from smaller to larger organisms. In this case, the exact composition of nanoparticles being used by Green Earth Technologies are trade secrets so the extent of toxicity is unknown.

The groups wrote, "We understand the enormous technical and regulatory challenges posed by the oil spill. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Exacerbating this grave situation by allowing GET to add pollutants to contaminated land and water should not be allowed, especially considering that the GET nanoparticles could be impossible to recover once introduced into the environment. We fully oppose this irresponsible, unscientific and dangerous experiment."

IATP has been looking into food and agriculture applications of nanotechnology and the lack of strong regulations to protect the environment and public health.

Read the full letter on nanotech and the oil spill.

Ben Lilliston

May 12, 2010

Appropriate tech, safe chemicals and the state of nanotechnology

The power of new technology is undeniable. If adopted blindly, however, technology can carry with it a multitude of risks: to health, the environment or to a broad range of sociopolitical considerations. In the latest episode of Radio Sustain, we assess the potential and pitfalls of new technology.

Last month, IATP toured Compatible Technology International's (CTI) workshop in St. Paul to get the scoop on how their low-tech devices are used to improve quality of life while remaining appropriate—culturally, economically and environmentally—for the communities they are intended to assist. In our interview, Dan Grewe discusses CTI's work and what the engineers consider in each of the technologies they create.

Next we get Kathleen Schuler's take on the Safe Chemical Act of 2010. As co-director of the Healthy Legacy Coalition and an IATP senior policy analyst, she applauds the bill and offers some key changes to make the legislation more effective.

Finally, IATP's Steve Suppan explains what nanotechnology is and why we need a more informed regulatory framework before it spreads throughout the food system.

Have a listen now and let us know your thoughts!

Radio Sustain episode 25 (mp3)Linda turning the hand-powered grinder at CTI.

Andrew Ranallo

April 20, 2010

Who's regulating nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology and its applications are so small that it can be hard to get your head around, but there are more than 1,000 products with nanomaterials already on the market, so we'd better get a handle on this quick. 

Nanoscale science and technology manipulate matter at the level of 1–300 nanometers (or billionths of a meter) and claim a seemingly amazing array of applications for medicine, technology, energy and food. Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Andrew Sheider's recent investigative series "The Nanotech Gamble" lays bare the potential health and environmental risks and extent to which largely unregulated nanotech products are already on the market, and in the food supply, without our knowledge.

Given the risks and speed with which nanotechnology is entering the marketplace, U.S. states are starting to explore what they can do in light of federal inaction. In testimony before the Minnesota state legislature, IATP's Steve Suppan outlines the regulatory holes at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which thus far have largely given nanotechnology a free ride. (You can listen to the entire April 14 hearing here.)

On April 15, the University of Minnesota hosted Governing Nanobiotechnology: Reinventing Oversight in the 21st Century. Academics, private industry, public interest representatives and government regulators grappled with the particular regulatory challenges posed by nanotechnology (videos of presentations coming soon).

As Steve points out in his testimony to state legislators, traditional regulation targets pollutants partially in terms of volume: that approach won't work for nanotechnology. "The quantity of nanomaterials that may cause environmental and/or public health harm will be much smaller in volume than what [...] has traditionally been inventoried. Prioritizing when and where to monitor pollutants will be a difficult task because potential risks of nanomaterials are not indicated simply by their size but also by their configuration and shape."

When scientific advancement overtakes our ability to regulate it's time to take a step back. The U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative spent an estimated $1.8 billion developing new nanotech products in 2009. Little more than one percent of that taxpayer investment is dedicated to research to protect consumers and nanotechnology workers from potential environental, health and safety hazards of nanotechnology products. This is an unacceptably nano-sized start to a huge regulatory challenge.

Ben Lilliston