How could nanotechnology affect the organic industry?

A new report from BCC Research shows that the worldwide nanotechnology market will reach about $15.7 billion this year and will grow to $27 billion by 2015 (1).

From pharmaceuticals to certain fabrics to some sunscreens, nanotechnology is all around us. The question is, how might it affect the organic food manufacturers and suppliers?

The Nanorganic Debate

Nanoparticles are extremely small molecules that measure one to 300 nanometers. This developing science is intended to make new substances with properties that are different from their larger natural or synthetic counterparts.

This technology is so new that we have no knowledge of how nanoparticles could negatively affect the environment over the long term. Some also believe that the particles are so small that they could wreak havoc in our bodies, crossing individual cell membranes or even the blood–brain barrier. Such potential has made some players in the organic industry raise the strong viewpoint that nanotechnology has no place in this marketplace whatsoever.

This viewpoint has merit. There are a lot of unanswered questions about nanotechnology that could have some potentially scary answers. “How is it produced? How is it used? And, what is its impact when it is being produced, when it’s being used and when it’s disposed? asks Katherine DiMatteo, an organic expert and a senior associate at Wolf, DiMatteo and Associates, New Castle, VA.

The anti-nanotechnology camp has raised these questions to the National Organic Standards Board, asking them to prohibit nanotechnology outright. There’s some precedent for such a ban. Canada, for instance, will not allow nanotechnology to be used in its organic foods. And earlier this year, the Committee on Environment, Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament voted to exclude nanotechnology from its list of allowable novel foods in the European Union.

But, there’s an opposing view. Others in the industry feel that there could be some merit for nanotechnology, even within natural or organic food production. Such technology may help improve the gas barrier properties of certain food packaging (leading to better shelf life), improved nutritional property of food ingredients, antibacterial properties and better mouth-feel of some foods (2). The technology could one day also help improve nutrient bioavailability or even the targeted delivery of certain nutrients (2).

Plus, not all nanoparticles are engineered. Technically, the corrosion of metal can be considered nanotechnology (under a broad definition). Nanomaterial can also be a natural byproduct of standard food production processes such as homogenizing milk and grain milling (2). Given that a broad ban of nanotechnology could be problematic for some important organic foods like milk and grain, DiMatteo asks, “Can we find out as much as we can about this technology, and then prohibit it in ways that fit?”

NOB’s Stance

For the past several years, organic food manufacturers and suppliers have argued about whether the industry should support or discourage nanotechnology. Recently, one major voice in the mix announced some middle ground.

The National Organic Board Materials Committee decided to change its rules to clarify its stance on nanotechnology. In September of this year, the group released a guidance document, Engineered Nanomaterials in Organic Production, Processing and Packaging, detailing some of its recommendations (which will be discussed at October 26–28, 2010 public symposium).

In reaction to the proposed guidelines, DiMatteo states that the group isn’t giving up its standards or principles, but it is investigating how the organic industry can look at this new technology within its parameters.

“I think what’s really important,” say DiMatteo, “is to understand what we’re prohibiting and to define it clearly…I’m glad that this is something we’re still discussing in the U.S. because we should make sure that we are not eliminating something that may already be in use and has no negative implications.”

For instance, the guidance document bans engineered nanomaterials in products bearing the USDA Organic seal unless they’re on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The Committee is suggesting defining “engineered nanomaterials” as follows:

“Substances deliberately designed, engineered and produced by human activity to be in the nanoscale range (approx. 1–300 nm) because of very specific properties or compositions (e.g., shape, surface properties or chemistry) that result in that nanoscale” (3).

Of note, the definition excludes certain nano-byproducts of organic food processing: “Incidental particles in the nanoscale range created during traditional food processing such as homogenization, milling, churning and freezing, and naturally occurring particles in the nanoscale range are not intended to be included in this definition. All nanomaterials (without exception) containing capping reagents or other synthetic components are intended to be included in this definition” (3).

The group also said it would support restrictions to packaging and other materials that come in direct contact with organic foods as well as crops and livestock since “there is great concern for contamination that could occur from primary packaging.” The committee stated that inadvertent contamination from something out of an organic facility’s control (like a nanofilter in its water supply) would not require a company to move or risk losing organic certification. The National Organic Program plans to clarify these situations.

Overall, DiMatteo feels the document offers “a practical approach” to handling the use of nanotechnology. “It moves the discussion to a level where we can use all our knowledge and our principles to come up with something that works for us in the organic industry.” WF


1. BCC Research, “Global Nanotechnology Market to be Worth $27 Billion in 2015,” press release distributed September 23, 2010.

2. National Organic Standards Board, Materials Committee, Nanotechnology in Organic Production, Processing, and Packaging, September 8, 2009.

3. National Organic Standards Board Materials Committee, Guidance Document: Engineered Nanomaterials in Organic Production, Processing and Packaging, Sept. 2, 2010.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2010