andrew schneider investigates

April 2, 2009

Here is another wonderful example of better living through nanotechnology. Maybe.

Filed under: Food Safety,Nanotechnology,Pesticides — Andrew Schneider @ 14:26

It sounds great on the surface as many ideas do.

Scientists at Cornell University think they’ve solved a widespread public health problem that endangers the health of farm workers and people who live near farms – the drifting of pesticides from the crops where they’re applied to the air that people breathe.

The researchers are encapsulating pesticides in biodegradable nanofibers.
The research team – Chunhui Xiang and Prof. Margaret Frey, an associate professor of fiber science in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology – say using the techniques will keep the pesticides intact until needed and minimize loss to drift or being washed away from the plants they are intended to protect.

Margaret Frey, an associate professor of fiber science in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and Chunhui Xiang, led the research.  File photo by Cornell University

Margaret Frey, an associate professor of fiber science in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and Chunhui Xiang, led the research. File photo by Cornell University

“Our technology will decrease the amount of pesticides applied, which is good for the environment,” said Xiang.

The researchers say the new technology also extends how long the pesticides remain effective and improves the safety of applications.

“The chemical is protected, so it won’t degrade from being exposed to air and water,” Frey said. “It also keeps the chemical where it needs to be and allows it to time-release.”

The nano delivery system is created by electrospinning solutions of cellulose, the pesticide and PLA – a polymer derived from cornstarch.

To find out if pesticides delivered this way could really work, another group working with Prof. Michael Hoffmann planted squares of pesticide-loaded fabrics with pole bean seeds in greenhouses on campus.

Pesticide delivered from the fabric effectively controlled white flies on the bean plants, he said.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Frey said.

And that’s precisely what’s concerning many who worry about the safety of food and leads to obvious questions being raised:

*  Will the nonmaterial enter the flesh of the food it’s protecting?

*  Can it be washed off?

*  Can the residue of the pesticides be accurately measured?

“I wish I knew more about it,” says Dr, Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for The Organic Center, a food public advocacy group.

He says that progress in delaying the delivery of a pesticide will cut both ways,

“It will extend the time while the active ingredient is around, but it will also lower the dose available at any point in time, which means the total amount of pesticide delivered will need to be increased,” said Benbrook who was the director of the National Academies of Science’ agricultural board.

“The concept of delayed-release delivery of pesticides is seductive on many levels, but likely will pose new challenges and lead to a new generation of unintended consequences,” Benbrook added.

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