Nanotechnology in the agri-food industry

Raising awareness of nanotechnology in the agri-food sector, including feed and food ingredients, intelligent packaging and clever detection systems, is key to influencing consumer acceptance.

This is according to Teagasc‘s Dr Meave Henchion, head of the department of agri-food business and spatial analysis, speaking ahead of an international nanotechnology conference.

Entitled ‘The Nanotechnology in the agri-food industry: Applications, opportunities and challenges’ the conference, organised by Teagasc, Queen’s University Belfast and Safefood, is taking place on 9 January.

Nanotechnology refers to different types of techniques that are used to manipulate matter at the level of molecules and atoms.

At this really tiny scale, familiar materials start to behave differently, offering unusual functionality and value, such as strength, colour change, elasticity, conductivity, reactivity and efficiency. These same materials behave completely different when examined at human-eye level.

Speaking to AgriLand, Dr Henchion explained: “We are still at the very early stage of nanotechnology. It is a huge technological application. There are a lot of challenges and questions, and we need to examine how we achieve that potential.”

So how can nanotechnology help farmers?

“In terms of its application at farm level, nano sensors and nano-based mart systems are under way,” she said.

“In addition, nanotechnology is used in the protection of crops in terms of the ingredients of pesticides that makes them more efficient. There are both economic and environmental impacts.”

Nanotechnology sensors can also be applied to labelling as well, Dr Henchion added.

“These tiny seniors could indicate if the food has gone off for example. Also new sensors can identify chemicals and antibiotics in the product. There is a huge range of exciting technology out there.”

The Teagasc expert also highlighted the benefits of nanotechnology in the food supply chain and the benefits of nutritional value.

“Nanotechnology can increase the nutritional value and potentially increase the bio-availability of the substance.

“In terms of global food production, the main aspects of nanotechnology are improved quality and nutritional value. This can also be applied to animal feeds.”

With all this new technology, there comes a health warning, she stressed. “There are many uncertainties and unknowns. The potential risks of nanotechnology at farm level for example. That needs to be explored more and that is the big challenge.”

One of the areas of research Teasgasc is examining is the consumer perception of nanotechnology. It surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that Irish consumers were overwhelmingly not aware of emerging nanotechnology in the food chain.

“Consumers still don’t know a lot about nanotechnology. We looked at how they view it. Now there is a big challenge in terms of communicating that technology. We need the scientists to contribute to a balanced debate on the benefits and risks of nanotechnology to raise greater awareness among the consumer.”

The conference takes place in the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Ashtown, Co Dublin in the New Year.

Pictured Teagasc’s Dr Maeve Henchion