US organic standards board to ban nanotechnology from organic food

(This is the second of a two-part series)

The Materials Handling Committee of the US National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has recommended that nanotechnology be banned from organic food production. The committee published a document on the US government�s federal register in September calling for the ban. The document will be open for public comment, and then the full NOSB will vote whether to affirm the ban.

Unanimous support for ban expected

Tracy Miedema, NOSB member and national sales and marketing manager at Stahlbush Island Farms, expects the NOSB to unanimously support the ban. �I think the board will speak with one voice prohibiting nanotechnology,� she says.

If the NOSB votes for the ban, they would then recommend that the National Organic Program (NOP) publish a guidance/policy statement prohibiting nanotechnology in organic food production.

�We will make a recommendation to the NOP, and we hope they proceed with it to rule-making,� says Dan Giacomini, NOSB vice chairman and chairman of the Materials Handling Committee.

Miedema says the NOSB followed a similar approach in 2007 when it voted unanimously to ban cloning of animals in organic production, which led to an NOP policy statement prohibiting cloning.

Miedema was concerned that products of nanotechnology could achieve status as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the US government, which could allow them to be used in organics. However, after discussing this with NOP attorneys she was assured the ban would keep nanotech out of organics. �We tried to build a document that is airtight,� she says.

Overwhelming majority opposed to nanotech

In March, the NOSB asked for public comments about the use of nanotechnology in organics. According to Giacomini, the comments they received led them to vote for the ban. �The overwhelming majority of comments said that nanotech should be banned from the organic industry.�

According to Giacomini, many comments said that nanotechnology should be considered an �excluded method� in organics as is genetic engineering.

Two noted experts argued against the use of nanotechnology in organics. Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota and former NOSB chairman, wrote that �Nanotechnology will further entrench industrial agriculture and industrial food as our dominant paradigm, to the detriment of public health and the environment. As such, nanotechnology is antithetical to organic principles and should be prohibited from the USDA Organic standard.� Michael Hanson, senior scientist at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, wrote that there are unknown health and environmental risks associated with nanoparticles, and that they should be �excluded as a synthetic or prohibited substance� in organic production.

Nanotechnology involves the creation and manipulation of materials at the scale of atoms and molecules. Scientists are applying nanotechnology to many industries, including food production. Critics say that too little is known about the impact of nanoparticles on human health and the environment.

Nanotech already in organic products

Banning nanotechnology in organic production presents challenges because it is already being used in some organic products. Nano Green Sciences, Inc. sells a nano-pesticide that they claim is �organic,� says Ian Illuminato, health and environmental campaigner with Friends of the Earth. He also says that other natural pesticides, such as pyrethrin and copper, could contain nanoparticles and that nanosilver could be used to clean vegetables of bacteria.

Some personal care products promoted as organic already contain nanoparticles, Illuminato says. This is particularly a problem because personal care products containing organic ingredients are not regulated by the NOP so the ban on nanotechnology would not apply to these products. However, some manufacturers may decide to voluntarily eliminate them due to the ban.

Contamination challenges

Nanotechnology may present even greater contamination problems to organic foods than genetically engineered products. �The biggest difference between GMO and nano is that while GMOs are just in food processing, nano is in both processing and food packaging,� Giacomini says.

According to Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature�s Path Foods, nanotechnology can impact organic foods, packaging, agriculture, and personal care products. At the farm level, nanoparticles used in crop inputs, such as fertilizers or pesticides, could drift through by air or rain to organic farms. During processing nano contamination of organic could also occur through nano food processing additives. Organic foods could be contaminated by nanoparticles used in packaging, utensils, storage, and transportation and filtration equipment.

Other organic organizations ban nanotech

The United States isn�t the first country to ban the use of nanotechnology in organics. The Soil Association, the main organic certification organization in the United Kingdom, banned nanoparticles from the organic cosmetics, foods, and textiles that it certifies. The Biological Farmers of Australia has proposed that organic certification be applied only to nano-free products because of the unknown risks of the technology. Austrian organic certifier Austria Bio Garantie has banned the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics. The US-based Organic Crop Improvement Association has also added a clause in their organic standard to regulate the use of nanotechnology.

Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report October 2009