How often do you stop and look at what you've eaten or stop to think about the creams you have rubbed into your skin? In reality, are the ingredients of creams, lotions, foods and drinks in the forefront of our mind on a day-to-day basis? Probably not.
In New Zealand (my home country) AgResearch, our agricultural research and development centre, were put under the media spotlight last week after three cows died at their facility.
The cows died last year as a result of genetic modification – their ovaries grew to the size of tennis balls (they are normally the size of a thumb nail) and ruptured. This happened because eggs were injected with human genetic code as part of an experiment to see if that code would enable the cows to produce milk containing compounds that could be used as a human fertility treatment.
Unsurprisingly, there was some public outrage over the incident, and it is likely it will reignite the GM debate over here once more. Matters were made worse when a scientist from the facility was reported saying the deaths were not a big deal –instead, simply part of the learning process.
According to media:
“AgResearch has permits to put human genes into goats, sheep and cows for the next 20 years to see if the animals can produce human proteins in their milk, which could be used to treat human disorders in the future.”
So it seems genetic manipulation in animals is here to stay, for the next decade at least.
Scientists have held on to the idea that manipulation of the genes in our food is a viable way to mitigate the spread of certain diseases, or to improve nutrition, and the manipulation is not limited to animals.
Nanotechnology is the study of the controlling of matter on an atomic and molecular scale and its use in food manipulation is gaining attention in the States and Europe.
Steps have just been taken by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee to control the use of nanotechnologies in foods for humans. They voted yesterday in support of protection of Europeans from the possible dangers of nanotechnologies in food, and the vote now needs to be endorsed by the whole parliament in July.
A new regulation will only be adopted after co-decision, where both the European Parliament and Members States are in agreement on a final text.
This decision has been welcomed from groups, like the EEB, wary of the possible side effects of nanoparticles in food.
Louise Duprez, Nanotechnology Policy Officer at EEB, stated:
“We are pleased MEPs continued to defend consumer health and the environment. There are serious knowledge gaps regarding the general safety of nano and there is great public concern about nano in food. Consumers are one step closer to being sure that nano won’t land on their plates unless it is proven to be safe.”
Advocates of nanotechnology claim that the technology could deliver improved packaging, food processing, enhance flavor and improve nutrition.
It is also suggested that we could see the implementation of ‘functional foods’, which would carry medicines and supplements, and provide a vital form of aid for developing countries.
There are also more frivolous possibilities. Kraft is reportedly working on the development of “Interactive foods”, which would allow you to choose the desired flavor and color of your food.
Nanotechnology is not limited to foods, it has also been introduced into the cosmetic industry, although it appears this is met with less resistance. It is unknown how many products on the market are using nanotechnology already and in what capacity. Companies may be less than truthful when advertising a product, and there are occasions when the word 'nano' is used, but not in reference to any particular particle in the item.
When it comes to food however, groups like the EEB, will continue to champion a cautious approach and it appears that in Europe at least, government officials are in agreement. At the very least, it seems that labeling of foods with a manipulated ingredient list should become mandatory, so that the power of consumption is placed squarely at the feet of the consumer.
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