© John Dziekan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Fresh soybeans
'There could be unintended consequences ... if we're not careful.'

Long term use of nanotechnology to affect everything from stain-resistant clothing to more efficient fuel could reduce a plant's ability to produce food, according to a study of soybeans at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Scientists planted soybeans in soil doused with two kinds of metallic nanoparticles to determine whether the materials would become part of the plants.

In both cases, the substances became part of the plants. In ground spiked with zinc oxide nanoparticles, soybeans seemed to fare slightly better than normal. In soil treated with cerium oxide nanoparticles, the plants grew fewer leaves and punier bean pods," Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star reports. "That raises implications for the fields of Kansas, Missouri and the rest of the Grain Belt where, scientists presume, manufactured nanoparticles have been accumulating for a few decades now.

And nanotechnology could wreak havoc elsewhere, including in sewage plants, after chemicals wash off into local wastewater treatment facilities.

According to the study, "The results provide a clear, but unfortunate, view of what could arise over the long term (including that) plant growth and yield diminished ... Juxtaposed against widespread land application of wastewater treatment biosolids to food crops, these findings forewarn of agriculturally associated human and environmental risks from the accelerating use of (manufactured nanomaterial)."

"The stuff is going to end up somewhere," said Patricia Holden, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a lead researcher in the soybean study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We're only beginning to learn what that might mean."

Organizations such as Food & Water Watch worry that the science will become so ingrained in our way of life that it can't be undone.

And while Todd Kuiken, a senior researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnology, said the study "dosed the hell out of a bunch of soil," he acknowledged that nanoparticles can be absorbed by the plant and cut back its ability to produce food.

Ken Klabunde, a Kansas State University distinguished professor of chemistry, told The Kansas City Star that nanotechnology should use only safe substances such as zinc and cerium, rather than lead.

"There are many things on the periodic table that we could make nano and would be highly toxic," he said. "There could be unintended consequences ... if we're not careful."