Guest article

Maximising potential and minimising risks of nanotechnology

By By Martin Livermore and Ulrich Adam

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nanotechnology Consumer protection Consumer Europe

Maximising potential and minimising risks of nanotechnology
Nanotechnology holds great potential and is being used increasingly in food and consumer products. So far, the connotations have mostly been positive. However this promising start is now at risk of being reversed. There is a very real danger that a scare – real or imagined – involving nanotechnology will hit the headlines, evaporating the current positive image of the ‘nano’ label.

Arguably, much of the public acceptance and commercial uptake of nanotechnologies in Europe will depend on three key challenges:

  1. The future tone and course of the regulatory debate (which is increasingly set in Brussels);
  2. The ability of companies to demonstrate specific benefits to consumers; and
  3. Their success in branding and distinguishing specific products so as to foster acceptance of and trust in the new technology.

Companies wanting to use nanotechnology successfully in the future will need an integrated strategy that helps them to effectively deal with all these aspects.

The (public) jury is still out

Let us be clear that there is no evidence at all that the current generation of nano-products is causing any kind of health problem. Nor is the nightmare ‘grey goo’ scenario – in which self-replicating nano-bots consume the world's biosphere – any more than another science fiction dystopia. Then again, neither are there any credible concerns about the safety of properly regulated GM crops, and look what environmental activists were able to make of that.

In light of this, governments and scientists are trying to engage the public to ensure that there is not a future consumer backlash against nanotech, as underlined by the public consultation launched by the European Commission in December 2009. The Commission has promised to review all relevant legislation in the next two years.

The tone of this debate and the legislative framework emerging from it will greatly affect the uptake and public image of nanotechnology in Europe in the years to come. A specific test case will be the labelling of nano ingredients which has been made obligatory for cosmetic products and is under consideration for food and other products. It will show for the first time if and how the technology will affect consumer choice.

Consumers buy products, not technologies

Yet even if a balanced regulatory regime is a precondition for the future use and application of nanotechnology in Europe, it will not automatically create trust and trigger demand among consumers. Consumers by and large are not really interested in technologies and the regulatory regimes that govern them; they are interested in products. As recent consumer research has shown, nanotechnology seems to be an example of a technology which will be embraced by consumers when it provides direct benefits.

If, for instance, nano particles applied in ice cream not only improved texture and uniformity, but also successfully enhanced the taste and health benefits of the product, consumer would be inclined to buy it, notwithstanding a rather sceptical attitude towards nanotechnology as a concept. As such, commercial success of nanotechnology will strongly depend on the ability to identify and demonstrate specific benefits to consumers.

Still, this leaves nano-products vulnerable to either real safety concerns in related areas or to contrived scares. This makes it important for companies operating in the area to protect their brands as carefully as possible.

One sensible way forward would be via market segmentation, either by ingredient type or product sector. If, for example, nano-particle-enriched cooking oils were to be clearly branded to distinguish them from other products using the blanket "nano" brand, this application would become increasingly trusted and insulated from possible negative publicity about, say, carbon nano-tubes.

But what works for one product does not necessarily work for another. Each case is different and needs separate analysis. The common factor is the approach. Brand owners need to be brutally honest about the potential for harm to their business. They should put themselves in the shoes of those who might damage their business.

Only then will it be possible to devise and implement effective strategies to protect the investment. Those who are complacent about the issues are risking their business.

Martin Livermore is a freelance science policy and communications consultant with considerable experience in the food, crop biotechnology and crop protection industries. He is also director of the Scientific Alliance, which encourages rational and constructive debate on environmental issues.

Dr Ulrich Adamis Associate Director and Head of the Food and Consumer Affairs Practice at Hill & Knowlton’s Brussels office. Over the past five years he has advised associations and companies on consumer acceptance issues related to perceived controversial technologies, including pesticides and human and veterinary vaccinations.

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