However smaller food companies and developing countries risk being muscled out of the market by larger food processors who have the money to pay for the research and an army of lawyers to keep control of the technologythrough intellectual property rights, the ETC Group said in a global report on nanotechnology patents.
Food processors and researchers are working on ways to make everyday foods carry medicines and supplements by creating tiny edible capsules, or nanoparticles, that release their contents on demandat targeted spots in the body. Others are currently developing ways of making nanomachines that can help companies ensure the safety and quality of their products. More controversially they
In an interview with FoodProductionDaily.com, ETC researcher Hope Shand said the patent survey indicated that food companies are patenting nano-scale products and processes like other sectors.
The trend is likely to accelerate. Since the research is still in its infancy legal battles could still be part of the industry's future.
"Virtually anytime you read a company's news release touting a new innovation in nano-scale food technology -- you can bet there's at least one patent already issued or applied for,"she said. "That's business as usual. It's too early to predict whether or not we'll see licensing wars related to applications of nano-scale technologies in food. The food industry giants suchas Kraft and Nestle, are not likely to have a problem with barriers involving exclusive monopoly patents. They have the economic muscle and lawyers to acquire a competing start-up, if necessary, or topatent around a new innovation."
In its report on nanotech patent applications ETC found that the world's largest transnationals, leading academic labs and nanotech start-ups are all racing to win monopoly control of tiny tech's colossal market.
Although industry analysts assert that nanotechnology is in its infancy, what ETC calls "patent thickets" are being claimed on fundamental nano-scale materials, tools and processes. Suchpatents are already creating thorny barriers for other would-be innovators.
Claims are often broad, overlapping and conflicting - a scenario ripe for massive patent litigation battles in the future, ETC stated.
"Control and ownership of nanotech is a vital issue for all governments and civil society because nanomaterials and processes can be applied to virtually any manufactured good across allindustry sectors," Wetter stated. "Patents are being granted that cut across multiple industry sectors - a single nano-scale innovation may span pharma, food, electronics andmaterials alike."
ETC found that the bulk of patent activity is concentrated in four of the potentially most lucrative areas: carbon nanotubes; inorganic nanostructures; quantum dots and dendrimers. Patents are alsobeing made on technology involving scanning probe microscopes.
Worldwide, industry and governments invested about $10bn in nanotech research and development last year, with two-thirds of the funds coming from corporate and private funds. There are an estimated1200 nanotech start-up companies, half of which are US-based.
Intellectual property (IP) will play a major role in deciding who will capture nanotech's trillion dollar market, who will have access to nano-scale technologies and at what price.
However the current patent process is chaotic, ETC stated. Many broad patents on nanotech-related materials, tools and processes have been granted too early and too often.
A separate report from Lux Research this year found the US had issued 3,818 nanotechnology patents by March 2005 and another 1,777applications awaiting judgment. A study of US patents by the University of Arizona and the US National Science Foundation found that the bulk of patents being issued are for US companies, followed byJapan, Germany, Canada and France.
ETC says this gold rush may shut out innovative companies in the less developed poorer countries of the world.
The issue is particularly important as World Trade Organisation rules protecting intellectual property (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property or Trips) will come into effect at thebeginning of next year.
"Nanotech underpins a new strategic platform for global control of materials, food, agriculture and health, and patent monopoly is a powerful tool for realising that strategy," ETCstated.
Ironically for the food industry the largest single holder of nanotech patents in the world is a Chinese researcher, Yang Mengjun. He has 900 patents on ancient Chinese medicinal herbs, by claimingto reduce them to nano-scale formulations.
Similar patents are being granted in the US and Europe. For example, the Pacific Corporation (Korea) has won a European patent on nanoscale ginseng for use in cosmetic products. The PacificCorporation claims that an emulsion of ginseng at the nano-scale allows it to penetrate the skin, exerting an antiaging effect.
"Patent claims on nano-scale formulations of traditional herbal plants are providing insidious pathways to monopolize traditional resources and knowledge - one more reason why theConvention on Biological Diversity and FAO should address the implications of nanotechnology," ETC stated.
Nanotechnology refers to developments on the nanometer scale, usually 0.1 to 100 nanometres. One nanometer equals one thousandth of a micrometer or one millionth of a millimeter. The nanofoodmarket is expected to rise from €2.1bn today to €5.6bn next year and to €16.4bn in 2010 according to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser. About 200 companies around the world are currentlyactive in nanofood research and development, he said.
Improving the safety and quality of food will be the first step. About 180 applications are in different developing stages and a few of them are on the market already. Further breakthroughs in cropDNA decoding and analysing will allow the industry to predict, control and improve agricultural production. The technology will allow companies to design food with much more capability and precision,lower costs and shelf-life.
"Some companies are already aware of the impact of nanotechnology in food industry," he said. "Research facilities are established, potential applications are under study,whereas only a handful of nano food products are market available now. Nevertheless, the tremendous potential will attract more and more competitors into this still unploughed field."
ETC is a non-profit advocacy group for developing countries.