UK organic food lobby bans nanoparticles

The Soil Association, which represents Britain’s organic food producers, has banned the use of manufactured nanoparticles as ingredients in all products it certifies.

While the Soil Association recognises the positive potential of nanotechnology, it is particularly concerned about the use of engineered nanomaterials in cosmetics and health products. The association also cites studies that appear to show negative effects from these materials on living organisms.

The nanomaterials ban has attracted much critical attention in the media, and a recent editorial in New Scientist magazine was particularly scathing about the Soil Association’s apparent distinction between manufactured and ‘natural’ nanoparticles. Responding to the criticism, policy manager Gundula Azeez claims that the association’s position has been misrepresented.

“Yes, we have excluded ‘naturally occurring nanoparticles’ from the prohibition in our standard,” says Azeez. “However, we are not saying that soot from diesel combustion is alright, as it appears that some commentators have assumed. We are well aware and share the deep concerns about the large body of evidence that shows such existing nanoparticle soot pollution is widely causing respiratory problems.”

Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the Washington DC-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, discusses the problem in terms of scientific uncertainties, political procrastination, and a tendency on the part of some to fill knowledge gaps with speculation.

“While the Soil Association stance is hard to justify from the current state of science and would be very difficult to enforce, it is symptomatic of a society that needs more clarity on how to use nanotechnologies safely,” says Maynard. “And the only way that the present fog on safe nano will be cleared is through targeted, relevant and timely research, and extensive public engagement.”

This point is reinforced by chemist and nanotoxicology expert Dangsheng Su at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin: “Research in the field of nanotoxicology is still at its infancy, and the parameters that determine the toxicity of nanoparticles are not known in any detail.”