New Report Calls Into Question the Use of Nanomaterials in Our Food Chain

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 25, 2013.   A new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) finds that nanomaterials added to soil via fertilizers and treated sewage waste used to fertilize fields could threaten soil health necessary to keep land productive. The report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain?, draws attention to the delicate soil food chain, including microbes and microfauna, that enable plant growth and produce new soil. Laboratory experiments have indicated that sub-molecular nanoparticles could damage beneficial soil microbes and the digestive systems of earthworms, essential engineers in maintaining soil health. Other recent peer-reviewed scientific research showcasing potentially negative impacts of nano-fertilizers on public health and the food supply. Last month, Duke University published research which finds that low concentrations of silver nanoparticles in sewage sludge can cause significant disruptions to natural ecosystems. In February, a Dutch study revealed the harmful effects of silver imbued sewage sludge on earthworm health.

“In light of published research, the Obama administration should institute an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids from sewage treatment plants near nanomaterial fabrication facilities. A moratorium would give researchers time to determine whether nanomaterials in soil can be made safe and to research alternatives to building soil heath, rather than depending on fertilization with biosolids,” says IATP senior policy analyst Steve Suppan, PhD, author of the report.

Biosolids, otherwise known as sewage sludge, are composed of dried microbes previously used to process wastewater in treatment plants. As Beyond Pesticides’ points out in the Fall 2012 issue of Pesticides and You points out, these materials can be very hazardous to human health and the environment because they can contain high concentrations of toxic contaminants, such as pesticides, detergents, estrogenic hormones, antibiotics, dioxins, PCBs, flame retardants, and heavy metals. According to IATP, several researchers assume that nanomaterials are increasingly present in biosolids used as fertilizer on about 60 percent of U.S. agricultural land. Over time, the report explains, nanomaterials in these agricultural inputs can accumulate and harm soil health.

Nanomaterials are frequently advertised as a component of market-available fertilizers—designed to increase the effectiveness of fertilizers by making them the same size as plant and root pores—but because nanotechnology is an unregulated global industry, there is no pre-market safety assessment. Nanosilver, silver nanoparticles, consists of many silver atoms or ions clustered together to form a particle 1-100nm in size. Due to their small size, these nanoparticles are able to invade bacteria and other microorganisms and kill them. However, the long-term impacts of this new technology to human health and the environment are still unknown. Currently, the chemical testing methodologies for nanotechnology are outdated, manufacturers do not fully disclose the nanoparticles that are incorporated in their products, and there is a critical lack of governmental oversight and regulation. As there are no requirements for labeling nanoparticles in the U.S., consumers are largely in the dark. More research is urgently needed to adequately understand possible long-term impacts of nanotechnology.

“As agri-nanotechnology rapidly enters the market, can soil health and everything that depends on it can be sustained without regulation?” asks Dr. Suppan. “That’s the question regulators, researchers and anyone involved in our food system should be asking themselves.”

The report also details risks specific to farmers and farmworkers applying dried biosolids that incorporate nanomaterials, including inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and other toxicological impacts. Biosolids, otherwise known as sewage sludge, are composed of dried microbes previously used to process wastewater in treatment plants. The material is increasingly being used in conventional agriculture, but its application is explicitly forbidden in organic production. This is because the sludge can contain high concentrations of toxic contaminants, such as pesticides, detergents, estrogenic hormones, antibiotics, dioxins, PCBs, flame retardants, and heavy metals.

With no regulatory system in place—in the U.S. or elsewhere—for producing, and selling nano-fertilizers, IATP’s report concludes by asking for governments to require robust technology assessments involving biological engineers, soil scientists, public health professionals, farmers and concerned citizens before allowing indiscriminate application by industry.

The only surefire way to avoid nanomaterials is food is to buy USDA organic certified product. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) imposed a general ban over nanotechnology in its fall 2010 meeting, although USDA’s National Organic Program has never initiated rulemaking on the subject. Overall, little is being done to review, regulate, or safety test nanotechnology that is currently being used in conventional agriculture and food processing, ingredients and packaging. Additionally, be wary of any lawn fertilizers which claim to be “organic” or “natural” but list ingredients such as “biosolids,” “dried microbes,” or “activated sewage sludge.”

It’s important to point out that the application of nanotechnology techniques to agricultural crop inputs is not necessary to feed the world. Good organic practices work to build the soil and maintain an ecological balance so that chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides are proven unnecessary. Scientific studies show that organic yields are comparable to conventional yields (read abstract) and require significantly lower inputs. Therefore, organic agriculture is not only necessary in order to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, it is necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of food production. To find out more about the benefits certified organic products and production systems, visit Beyond Pesticides’ organic food program page.

Sources: IATP Press Release, http://www.beyondpesticides.org 

Download the full report: Nanomaterials In Soil: Our Future Food Chain?

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.