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Agrifood Nanotechnology

Agrifood Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology—the development of devices constructed and operating at a molecular level—promises to revolutionize methods of manufacture and distribution throughout all phases of the economy. Agriculture—among the oldest and most established sectors of the economy—will be no exception. However, the recent attempt to introduce the revolutionary technical methods of recombinant DNA (i.e. agricultural biotechnology) has been associated with a number of critical ethical and social issues, not the least of which being a prolonged and divisive social conflict. What will nanotechnology mean for agriculture? And what can agriculture teach nanotechnology?

Intellectual Merit

The proposal will intertwine three broad objectives:

  1. Deriving lessons from the social conflict over agrifood biotechnology that may be useful to the entire range of researchers engaged in the new nanotechnology initiative;
  2. Building a new multi-disciplinary competence among a team comprising senior researchers with extensive experience in social and ethical issues associated with agrifood technology, senior researchers who have collaborated to develop communication strategies in engineering applications, and relatively junior researchers starting research programs in social and economic dimensions of agrifood science; and
  3. Identifying the most likely applications of nanotechnology within the agrifood sector (including food distribution and consumption), and developing a proactive strategy for understanding and addressing social and ethical issues associated with them. This third objective will encompass activities aimed at developing a conceptual and research framework, developing visions for governance, and engaging stakeholders as well as the general public.

The project will also develop materials for education on the social and ethical dimensions of agrifood nanotechnology directed to nanotechnology scientists and engineers, agrifood stakeholders, and the general public. Such work has not been undertaken previously and will contribute to understanding the societal dimensions of engineering, science and technology in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, economics and philosophy.

Methods of research are multiple and will involve interviews, content analysis, web fora, analytic deliberation and philosophical analysis, each deployed by team members who have used these methods in prior projects. The challenge will be to find ways of strengthening these methods and integrating the findings from each. The principle methods for this will be through team meetings, conduct of symposia, and active integration and management on the part of team leadership. Key to this process will be the organization of three workshops in which all team members will participate (along with invited guests) to address the themes of a) lessons from agrifood biotechnology, b) the emerging shape of agrifood nanotechnology and c) emerging standards for food safety and product quality associated with agrifood nanotechnology. Team members will also communicate and collaborate with a team of European researchers presently starting a project on public participation in the management and development of nanotechnology.

These research activities will be augmented with the development of an online course addressing social and ethical issues in agrifood nanotech, outreach/extension activities directed to nanotechnology scientists and engineers, agricultural producers, and the broader public, and papers or symposia presented at professional meetings.

Broader Impacts

The research will have applicability to non-agricultural domains of nanotechnology, as well as to other forms of technology, and papers and presentations will be structured to reach this wider audience. The emphasis on involving stakeholders and members of the public in the conduct of this research promises to help create a more participatory and democratic venue for decision-making regarding applications of agricultural nanotechnology. This proposal addresses the “Societal and Educational Implications of Scientific and Technological Advances on the Nanoscale” theme of NSF’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering program solicitation (NSF 03-043).

Science blogger Alexander Ovsov has translated this information into Romanian, Romanian translation.