Nanotechnology has been touted as the next industrial revolution. History reminds us that with the innovations and advancements of such a revolution come risks and abuses. The question is, are you prepared to reap the benefits of and protect against nanotechnology’s potential dangers?

First, what is nanotechnology? A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. So, the area in the dot of this “i” could hold nearly 1 million nanoparticles.  Nanotechnology generally refers to “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”  This technology involves constructing an object from the ground up — one atom at a time — so that the final product is atomically perfect.

Why should agribusiness care? In 2006, nanotechnology was incorporated into an estimated $50 billion in manufactured goods.  At least 500 different products spanning various applications within various industries have already entered the marketplace. Nearly 160 nanotech projects affecting agriculture and food production are currently in some stage of development.  Indeed, the term “agrifood nanotechnology” has already emerged to define agricultural applications of nanotechnology. 

For example, the government and private sectors are researching the ability of nanomaterials to reduce detect pathogen micro-organisms in animals that can lead to food infection in humans. At the other end of the supply chain, nanosensors may trigger color changes in food packaging to alert consumers when food has spoiled.  Given that every player’s goal throughout the food-supply chain is to provide safe, quality products, nanotechnology may play a crucial role in enhancing the agribusiness community’s reputation.

Does it merit concern? Compared to ordinary-sized materials, nanomaterials have a larger surface-area-to-mass ratio.  This may result in increased chemical reactivity and variations in strength or other properties.  With structures less than 50 nanometers in size, the laws of classical physics yield to quantum effects that may provoke different optical, electrical and magnetic behaviors. No one knows whether or how nanotechnology will affect human health or the environment because products incorporating nanomaterials may behave differently from products that do not.

Several organizations, such as Friends of the Earth, the InternationalCenter for Technology Assessment and Greenpeace, have expressed concern about nanotechnology’s potential risks.  Rumors have surfaced that “nanotoxicity” in nanomaterials may create problems similar to products containing asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  But a Food and Drug Administration task force recently concluded that there is no evidence of major risks associated with nanotechnology.

What should agribusinesses do now? As agrifood nanotechnology continues to develop, consider the following action items for your business:

  • Monitor the progress and public perception of nanotechnology.  Know which products may affect your business and whether the public is expressing concern, as it did with genetically modified organisms. 

    Web sites such as www.merid.org/NDN or free publications such as the Environmental & Chemical Update published weekly by Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP will keep you updated.

  • Review insurance policies, especially those concerning general liability, employee injury and regulatory risks, as well as director and officer liability.  Insurers are gathering information about potential nanotechnology risks and likely have not included a “nanotechnology exclusion.”  But this may change if it appears that nanotechnology risks are higher than estimated.
  • Maintain a dialogue within the agricultural production chain regarding nanotechnology use.  Are animal feed, veterinary supplies and pesticides being processed or packaged with nanotechnology applications?  Has nanotechnology been incorporated in the slaughter or processing stage?  If so, are your vendors willing to contractually defend and indemnify your business against lawsuits stemming from nanotechnology use?
  • If necessary, update your workplace safety standards to include guidelines for working with nanomaterials. 

In July 2006, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a draft document for public comment called “Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH.”  Although NIOSH has not finalized this document, it offers interim guidelines concerning engineering controls, proper work practices, protective equipment, and clean-up and disposal techniques relating to nanotechnology use. For more on that, follow this link.

Yes, nanotechnology is here to stay.

Paul La Scala is a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP. He defends corporations in complex product liability and consumer fraud actions. He’s in the firm’s Orange County, Calif., office, is a member of SHB’s Agribusiness and Food Systems Practice and serves as vice-chair of the firm’s Nanotechnology Task Force. You can reach him at plascala@shb.com.