There is an increase in nanotechnology research and commercialisation of nano products in African countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria. However, great disparities in technological advancement exist between African nations and the developed world, as well as within Africa itself; as a result of several socio-economic factors that include the lack of appropriate technological policies and regulations, perverse challenges of globalisation and acute brain drain of highly skilled personnel. South Africa is the leader in Africa, in terms of human capacity as well as research and development of nanotechnologies. In light of this, how will the development of nanotechnology in South Africa impact the emergence of health and safety issues surrounding agricultural nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is one of the emerging technologies in South Africa and its future sustainability is dependent on the understanding of both the real and perceived risks of the technology. It is anticipated that South Africa will experience a substantial growth in nanotechnology and, with such technological advances, the knowledge and awareness of the safety and health impacts of nanoproducts should not lag behind.
Nanotechnology applications in agriculture have been driven by a growing realisation that conventional farming technologies would neither be able to increase productivity any further nor restore ecosystems damaged by existing technologies. Improved effectiveness of farming through nanotechnology may result in increased farming yields. However, nanomaterials can potentially also create adverse effects in the environment and on human health. The slow release of active ingredients like pesticides using nanotechnology may imply higher persistence. As a consequence, there is increased risk for non-target organisms, with the possibility of residues on harvest.
The food industry has been greatly affected by nanotechnology, from agriculture to food packing. The main concern regarding human exposure to nanoparticles is the varying entry routes; digestion, inhalation and/or skin absorption. When absorbed, like asbestos particles, nanoparticles may enter the bloodstream and settle in sensitive tissue or trigger immune responses. Furthermore, the entry of nanoparticles into lungs and the blood stream pose a risk of inflammation, protein fibrillation and induction of genotoxicity.
Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (which works to address the socio-economic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could impact Africa, Asia and Latin America) and other non-governmental organisations are advocating for a moratorium on nano products as they seek safety assurance.
In South Africa, while investing in nanotechnology research that addresses key socio-economic focus areas of water, energy and health, the government has not ignored questions around risk. The Department of Science and Technology, in consultation with the nanotechnology community, has developed ethical guidelines in the form of a code of conduct for nanotechnology research, which aims to achieve sustainable development of nanoscience and nanotechnology research by optimising benefits while reducing potential risks. This also aims to ensure that nanoscience and nanotechnology research is carried out in a safe and responsible manner with no harm to researchers, the consumers and the environment.
The food industry has seen marked improvements because of nanotechnology. However, despite perceived public acceptance, there is still little understanding of the fate, transport and behaviour of engineered nanoparticles in the environment (including soils and the hydrosphere) outside of their original commercial or industrial domains. At present, it is difficult to predict the potential environmental impacts of nanoparticles. Due to their unique properties, nanoparticles may lead to toxic side effects. Exposure routes in consumers of food products that contain some of the nano materials must be researched thoroughly. With adequate understanding of nano materials we will have safer food products.