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Maximizing Productivity of Agriculture

The Food Industry and Nanotechnology

Anthony Fletcher
Food Production Daily

The food industry is under a great deal of pressure. Crop disease and drought continually threaten the profit margins of the $600bn agricultural sector at a time when transport raw material costs are at a record high, and put millions of lives at risk through famine.

In addition, the threat of bioterrorism has made food safety along the supply chain a government as well as an industry priority. And if all this weren’t bad enough, the industry also finds itself under increasing pressure from environmental groups and governments to clean up its act.

Nanotechnology is attractive to global food production because it promises the possibility of new answers to these key challenges. Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, which ranked ten nanotechnology applications currently in development with the greatest potential to aid the poor, put agricultural productivity enhancement second. The possibilities of maximizing agricultural productivity are evidently huge.

Crop and animal disease threaten productivity at the very beginning of the supply chain. The application of fertilizers and pesticides is strictly regulated — more so within the EU — and has become a controversial topic due to claims that some products can damage the environment and even get into the food chain. In addition, medicines are often only applied once disease symptoms are evident.

Nanotechnology could create cleaner agriculture and more targeted, preventative treatment. Scientists such as those at the Zettl Research Group at the University of Berkeley believe they are close to developing methods of near real time pathogen detection and location reporting by integrating nanotechnology micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) with new chip designs.

These nanotech smart treatment delivery systems could be used to detect early signs of disease in crops based on detection of changes in metabolism and respiration. Productivity would be increased through catching disease early and treating specific cases without the need to resort to the widespread use of pesticide.

In addition the global livestock industry is desperate to install measures that would guarantee the safety of the food supply. Outbreaks of disease have resulted in export bans and collapsed markets. Japan for example banned US beef and beef products after a single case of BSE in an 8-year-old cow imported into the United States from Canada was detected in December 2003, and is showing resistance to fully reopening its borders.

In the UK, the BSE crisis in the late 1990s led to a 40 per cent domestic decline in beef sales and the complete loss of many export markets.

The fortunes of this sector could therefore be transformed if supplies could be guaranteed to be completely safe. Scientists at the Kopelman Laboratory at the University of Michigan are developing non-invasive bioanalytical nanosensors that could perhaps be placed in, say, a cow’s saliva gland in order to detect single virus particles long before they have had a chance to multiply and long before disease symptoms are evident.

This issue of food safety has also been heightened by the spectre of bioterrorism. A Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu report entitled ‘Prospering in the Secure Economy’ suggested that the security breach of just one shipping container could cost companies up to $1 trillion. "Global business organisations are now squarely in the front line when it comes to protecting their supply chain, their data, their brand, and their very existence," said Jerry Leamon, Deloitte global managing partner for clients & markets.

New legislation on both sides of the Atlantic means that tracing food from the field to the factory and then to the supermarket shelf has become a legal obligation, pushing the pressure right up the supply chain. And although radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is being pushed hard by retailers as a viable means of automating traceability, it is nanotechnology that could ensure that the agricultural sector uses new traceability rules to their advantage.

Nanoscale Identity Preservation (IP) for example is a technique that could lead not only to the continuous tracking and recording of agricultural batches but also the monitoring of variables such as temperature. Nanoscale monitors could be linked to recording and tracking devices to monitor temperature changes, while other devices could be used to detect for pesticides and genetically modified crops (GMOs) within foodstuffs.

All this ties in with the central concern of the agriculture sector — how to restore consumer confidence over food safety and how best to maximize returns. In addition nanotechnology could help the food industry tap into critical consumer trends that are likely to dictate consumption patterns over the next decade or so.

The health food sector is booming — food giant Nestlé for example, which recorded a 2004 sales increase of 8.1 per cent, saw performance nutrition products (functional breakfast cereals or products such as Powerbar) grow by 18.2 per cent. Nanotechnology could transform this burgeoning sector, which offers the food industry the real possibility of exponential growth.

BioDelivery Sciences International (BDSI) for example is working with a food processor to study how nanotechnology might improve the delivery of fragile micronutrients such as antioxidants. The company has developed a Bioral Delivery System that provides an all-soy phosphatidylserine carrier vehicle for micronutrients in processed food. The vehicles, or nanocochleates, provide protection from degradation for nano-encapsulated, or encochleated, molecules.

Food companies are also working on developing nano-size capsules containing flavourings designed to break open only under certain circumstances. This shows how nanotech applications could be used to avoid what every manufacturer fears — the commodification of their products. Nanotechnology offers food companies the opportunity of differentiating their products from the competition.

Kraft Foods, the $34 billion giant that owns the Oscar Mayer, Nabisco and Post brands, has established NanoteK, a consortium of researchers from 15 universities and government labs, to explore how nanotechnology can be used to make improvements for the food industry. The company’s key focus is the customisation of food. Other food companies investigating nantotech applications include Unilever, Nestlé, Heinz and Sara Lee.

The food industry, which is under intense pressure to guarantee safety and at the same time achieve better profit margins, is just beginning to see the possibilities that nanotechnology offers right along the supply chain, from the field right through to the factory and onto the supermarket shelf. The current drive towards achieving optimum productivity is likely to continue to boost nanotechnology funding — a recent study from Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which looked into nanotechnology in the food industry estimated that the nanofood market will surge from $2.6 billion today to 20.4 billion in 2010.

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