Reporting on nanotechnology has tailed off in the media in the past five years – and so has consumer concern over its safety, according to a new report from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Back in 2007, the BfR ran similar research, and found most consumers were opposed to the use of nanotechnology in foods, food packaging and consumer goods. In this latest NanoView study, it found consumers were generally less aware of the term nanotechnology, which refers to the control of matter at an atomic or molecular scale of between one and 100 nanometres (nm) – one millionth of a millimetre.
Meanwhile, the range of potential uses for nanotech in foods is expanding rapidly. Among many others, these include improving the bioavailability of nutrients, flavour enhancement, removal of pathogens and undesirable chemicals, and in packaging to detect foodborne pathogens or spoilage.
The number of articles in the German media mentioning nanotech has fallen steadily since 2007, however, from an average of 806 articles a year from 2000-2007 to just 496 in 2012.
"The current results show that the majority of respondents are still largely unfamiliar with the term nanotechnology. At the same time, fewer reports on the subject appear in the media than five years ago,” said BfR President Professor Dr Andreas Hensel. "We have therefore developed a communication strategy which addresses consumers’ information deficits and information needs identified in the study."
The BfR found that nanotech was usually being reported in “a more substantial and more application-oriented” way than prior to 2008, with most articles appearing in science sections of newspapers and journals. Media reports focused on the benefits of nanotech, with “hardly any” articles mentioning any potential risks.
It also said there was a clear difference between the sexes, with men being more positive about nanotechnology than women.
“Despite the existing knowledge gaps, the population perceives it as a technology the benefits of which clearly outweigh any potential risks,” the BfR said.
“By implementing a targeted communications strategy, the BfR strives to make a contribution to closing the knowledge gaps. In particular, the different information needs of men and women must be taken into account: men tend to prefer fact-based information about nanotechnology, whereas women would like recommendations relevant to everyday life that they can easily convert into concrete behaviour.”
Both of BfR’s reports – on public perception and media coverage of nanotechnology – are available online (in German) here .