Sunday, December 03, 2006

Red nano milk?

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's left-leaning national dailies, speculated about the risks and benefits of emerging applications of nanotechnology last month. Among the potential applications that were discussed: milk containing nanoparticles that change their color and turn the milk red when it goes bad.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the commercial success of this idea will be limited, even for the U.S. market. After FlavrSavr and Frankenfood, one would assume that scientists and corporations have understood where consumers draw the line in the sand. But regardless of where exactly that line is, it's fairly safe to assume that red milk crosses it.

Nanoparticles, of course, are already used in numerous food-related applications, such as ketchup or vitamin supplements, and public protests have been limited. But consumers will not react favorably to products that remind them of the nanotechnology-based additives that they contain every time they take a sip from a carton of expired milk.

And when it comes to attitude formation, it does not matter if consumer concerns are justified or if they are based on an accurate understanding of the science behind these new technologies. What matters are public perceptions. And those perceptions, for better or worse, are often based on religious views, moral concerns, and other cognitive shortcuts that allow citizens to form opinions even in the absence of sufficient information. It's somewhat surprising, therefore, that some scientists still do not seem to be aware of the large body of empirical research on public perceptions about scientific issues, such as GMOs, stem cell research, and nanotechnology. And it's equally fascinating to see the naive surprise in some scientific circles and the calls for more public information campaigns every time there's a public backlash against a new technology or a policy proposal to regulate funding and research. One thing is for certain: If nano milk ever becomes a reality, it will produce both.