(Beyond Pesticides, November 5, 2010) At its October 2010 meeting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) passed a recommendation directing the USDA National Organic Program to prohibit engineered nanomaterials from certified organic products as expeditiously as possible. The NOSB, the expert citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy, reviews materials and provides recommendations to the NOP on what should be allowed and prohibited in organic agriculture and processing, as materials and methods change over time. Organic advocates, members of the organic industry and the NOSB are concerned that engineered nanomaterials could contaminate organic food and fibers.
Nanotechnology is the science and manipulation of chemical and biological materials with dimensions in the range from 1-300 nanometers (according to the NOSB recommendation). Because nanotechnology is such a new field, nanomaterials were not specifically addressed when the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990. While synthetic materials are already prohibited from organic production, unless specifically exempted, the NOSB recommendation will pressure the NOP to block petitions seeking an exemption and keep nanomaterials out of food packaging and contact surfaces. The recommendation also provides clarification that nanosized particles of synthetic substances already included on the National List may not be used in organic production. The NOSB recommendation deals specifically with engineered nanomaterials and purposefully omits those that are naturally occurring (corrosion particles, sea spray) or incidentally created (through traditional production methods such as grain milling and milk homogenization).
While there is overwhelming agreement to prohibit nanotechnology in organics generally, there is still confusion over the definition of what exactly should be prohibited and how to prohibit nanomaterials in the organic industry. To deal with outstanding issues, NOSB has recommended that NOP host a symposium on this topic.
The long-term impacts of nanomaterials on human health and the environment are still unknown. According to the Center for Food Safety, one of the most worrisome threats of nanoparticles is their unparalleled mobility: they can cross biological membranes, cell, tissues, and organs more readily than larger particles. When inhaled, they can go from the lungs into the blood system. Some nanomaterials may penetrate intact skin and gain access to systemic circulation. When ingested, nanomaterials may pass through the gut wall and into the blood circulation. Some nanochemicals can cross the placental barrier and affect developing children. Once in the blood stream, nanomaterials can circulate throughout the entire body and lodge in organs and tissues. The nano-scale’s dramatic increase in surface area of particles causes increased reactivity in materials and in some cases intrinsic toxicity. Inside cells, they that have been shown to cause oxidative damage, cancer and even cell death.
Outside of the NOP, little is being done to review or regulate or safety test nanotechnologies that are currently being used in agriculture and food processing, ingredients and packaging.
Specifically, the NOSB recommendation directs the NOP to:
”¢ Accept as a working definition – Engineered nanomaterials: substances deliberately designed, engineered and produced by human activity to be in the nanoscale range (approx 1-300 nm) because of very specific properties or compositions (eg. shape, surface properties, or chemistry) that result only in that nanoscale. Incidental particles in the nanoscale range created during traditional food processing such as homogenization, milling, churning, and freezing, and naturally occurring particles in the nanoscale range are not intended to be included in this definition. All nanomaterials (without exception) containing capping reagents or other synthetic components are intended to be included in this definition;
”¢ Disallow the engineered nanomaterial form of substances currently on the National List (NL) since nothing on the NL has been reviewed or a Technical Review (TR) performed that included any aspect of the manufacture, use and disposal of the listed substances in a nanomaterial form;
”¢ Accept materials that meet the working definition of engineered nanomaterials as synthetic substances even when those same materials in bulk form are nonsynthetic;
”¢ Accept that engineered nanomaterials may have unique properties that distinguish them from all listings of these substances in a bulk form, and that they are not allowed by a listing of the bulk form of the substance on the NL, pending a further recommendation from the NOSB, and implementation thereof by the NOP, on the use, or prohibition, of engineered nanomaterials in organic production processing and packaging;
”¢ Work with the NOSB to determine whether enforcement of restrictions in primary packaging and food contact surfaces is possible, practical, and legal; and,
”¢ Work with the NOSB to schedule a symposium on the topic of engineered nanomaterials to aid in evaluating (i) the adequacy of the definition, (ii) any potential areas of concern that may not be included in this definition, (iii) the enforceability of the various parts of the definition, (iv)possible adjustments to the approximate size constraints that may be needed, and (v) the effect of different regulatory approaches, including, but not limited to a complete §205.105 prohibition, a §205.105 prohibition unless as provided in the NL, or a statement that these substance are synthetic and all the prohibitions regarding that policy would be in place; all for the purpose of considering the development of a rule change on their use or prohibition.
Take Action: Urge the USDA National Organic Program to pass the National Organic Standards Board’s recommendation to prohibit nanotechnology in organic. Tell USDA that untested technologies have no place in our food system, especially in organics. Use the Organic Consumer Association’s action alert or send an email directly to Deputy Administrator for the NOP, Miles McEvoy.