Cellophane: Dinner of the Future?

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Food packaging presents a conundrum for eco-conscious consumers. On the one hand, despite our better intentions, precious little packaging material is ever recycled: the majority piles up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity. On the other, the packaging we're so quick to dismiss as wasteful significantly extends the shelf life of food, thus increasing the chances that the food will be bought and eaten.

Further complicating the ecological calculus is the fact that organic material emits methane, suggesting we might be better off dumping packaging debris rather than decaying food. Demanding that our food be "naked" is fine if we buy it right after harvest, but if—as with most food in this country—it's bought weeks or months after being harvested or processed, it would probably make more sense for the goods to be packaged. (And yes, locavores, you are absolutely right that there'd be no packaging problem if more consumers chose local options.)

Anyone who has watched the debate over genetically engineered crops rage over the past 10 years might experience déjà vu.

The most promising answer to this problem is one that's sure to provoke a range of reactions: edible packaging. This idea has been around since the 1960s, but only recently have companies begun testing the commercial waters. The gist of edible packaging is to wrap food—in most cases, produce—in a starch-based film that can be eaten, which helps food last longer while obviating bulky packaging. The potential downside, however, is that this opens the industrial food system to what many see as the dubious promise of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter on an atomic level to achieve a wide variety of applications. What can it do for edible packaging? According to John M. Krochta, a professor in the Food Science & Technology Department at UC Davis and a founding father of edible packaging, nanotechnology "promises to improve barrier and mechanical properties and facilitate effective incorporation of bioactive ingredients and other designed functions." Translation: nanoparticles can be used as a filler to keep the edible starchy film from breaking down in water.

But not everyone is so thrilled about nanotechnology. The most common concern is that applications of the technology will proceed without proper attention to possible side effects. As Geoff Fary, of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, explained on Australian television news, "We just don't want to take the risk of having these particles released in industry in a fairly unregulated way, only to find that we have reaped an awful harvest 30 years down the track." Sure enough, as critics have pointed out, there could be serious environmental, public health, and ethical consequences to the development of nanotechnology, whether the innovations are applied to food packaging, pharmaceuticals, or sewage treatment.

Anyone who has watched the debate over genetically engineered crops rage over the past 10 years might experience déjà vu. Even now, with almost 90 percent of U.S. soy, corn, and cotton grown with genetically modified seeds, skeptics maintain that a creepy technology has been shoved down our throats without proper oversight. This ire persists despite the fact that after 13 years on the market, genetically modified crops have not (yet?) been conclusively linked to any particular health problem.

There's a lesson to be learned from the vexing case of genetically engineered seeds. Popular concerns about complex technologies seem to arise less from scientific knowledge than from an instinctual distrust of regulation—and the lack of it. This makes perfect sense, given that most lay people lack either the time or ability to develop professional expertise in specialized scientific matter. Anyone, however, can assess regulatory legitimacy.

The key, then, for those who market nanotech is to do so while encouraging (rather than, as is typical of industry, minimizing) stringent regulation. There is, of course, no way to completely predict unintended consequences. But there is a way to develop procedures capable of catching potential problems while at the same time allowing the technology to reach its fullest, and safest, potential. Given the current depth of public suspicion, doing so may be the only way we'll be able to have our packaging and eat it too.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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