TranSTEP and nano food in the Netherlands

By Erik de Bakker, Wageningen Agricultural Research Institute – LEI (November 2014)

Nanotechnology is the science and technology of matter on an atomic and molecular scale, particular things that are less than 100 nanometers in size (for comparison, a human hair is about 60-80,000 nanometers wide). According to experts in the area of food technology, nanotechnology could pave the way for ingredients that are adapted for better taste or digestion, to address specific nutrition needs (e.g. babies, elderly or patients), among many other applications in the domain of food and agriculture that would be beneficial for public health and sustainability. However, the application of this evolving technology also raises concerns: not much is known about |the long term (side)effects of nanoparticles and nanostructures on the environment and human health. Besides such uncertainties concerning health and environmental risks there are many questions whether consumers will accept nanofood products and, in a broader sense, whether this technology is perceived as a sound innovation to address societal needs. Might people decline food with nanotechnology applications because they conceive it as unnatural? This makes nanofood a challenging topic for different stakeholders (e.g. politicians, administrators, enterprises, NGO’s and consumers). Here we outline the ways in which our integrated ‘TranSTEP’ approach, which aims to articulate perspectives from different assessment domains and disciplines, might support assessment and decision making processes for developing nanofood in the Netherlands.

The context of the development of nanofood in the Netherlands

In 2006 the theme ‘food and health’ was assigned as one of the five main themes for the research agenda in an official ‘government position’ on nanotechnology. The government, following an elaborate advice of the Dutch Health Council, explicitly stated that both opportunities and risks of nanotechnology should be taken into account (Van Est et al. 2012). In 2008 an observatory (KIR-nano: Knowledge and Information point risks nanotechnology) was established to signal and monitor risks of nanotechnology. Furthermore, the Action Program Nanotechnology announced a societal dialogue about nanotechnology that took place in 2009-2011: an amount of 4,5 million Euro was made available to discuss risk and safety issues and broader ethical and societal issues with a wider audience. In its evaluation the Commission Societal Dialogue Nanotechnology (CSDN) concluded that public perceptions of the innovation potential of nanotechnology would be positive if there was an adequate system for risk research and assigning permits and the public is properly informed about nanotechnological applications and how risks are governed (CSDN 2011).

After this extensive societal dialogue on nanotechnology, public engagement activities came more or less to a halt. According to the Dutch government, industry and knowledge institutes, largely united in the new research consortium NanoNextNL, should now assume responsibility for the (safe) development and societal acceptance of nanotechnology products (thereby following the general EU policy line on technological innovations). Risk research is an important issue in the NanoNext-consortium and its aim is to become a leader in high tech solutions that can make a significant contribution to resolving major societal challenges such as keeping an ageing society healthy and keeping our environment liveable in a changing climate. More recently, NanoNextNL underlined its ambitions for starting a broader dialogue with societal stakeholders.

The assessment governance landscape

Nanotechnology in the Netherlands can be said to have a substantial record of assessments and risk and safety issues have full attention (although there are still many uncertainties that make risk assessments a complicated task). However, nanotechnology refers to a wide range of research and applications, so assessments that concentrate more specifically on applications in the agro-food sector are hard to find. This explains that, in spite of an impressive track record of assessments, the topic of nanofood is still fraught with questions. Although the Commission Societal Dialogue Nanotechnology (CSDN 2011) claimed success in having increased the public awareness of nanotechnology, the Dutch public in general has not much awareness of nanofood and a large segment in the population, that could quite easily change its attitude on the basis of new information, is rather ambiguous about the desirability of nanofood (Stijnen et al. 2011, Ronteltap et al. 2012, Fischer et al. 2012).

In EST-Frame two workshops on the topic of nanofood were ran with stakeholders, scientists and assessment practitioners to map out the most urgent topics, identify research gaps, and the need for further assessments. The second workshop (an intensive two-day-workshop with 13 participants) already contained important elements from the TranSTEP approach, looking more closely at situation analysis (framing the issue), the current state of assessments (and possible shortcomings). After mapping the potential benefits of applications of nanotechnology in the agrofood-sector but also the possible concerns, the (hypothetical) case of iron fortification in food encapsulated with nanotechnology, that could help to solve the iron deficiency of teen aged girls in Europe, was chosen to discuss in more detail. At the end the possible institutionalization of a TranSTEP group (what then was called a “trans-domain team”) was discussed that could contribute in making “integrated appraisals” with a broader knowledge base and that brings in different perspectives.

An important quandary that arose during his workshop was, what was named, ‘the waiting game’ in the development of nanofood. Due to the many uncertainties concerning (further) risks regulation and consumer/societal responses, industry involved in the development of nanofood products dare not to risk the company’s trade-mark by introducing such products in their portfolio. Instead they are waiting for someone to introduce a nanofood product first and then see how the market would react. The main challenge, it was concluded, is to break through this ‘waiting game’ and to open up a wider debate with societal stakeholders, such as NGOs and the public. To do this the idea was launched of a ‘societal incubator’ (see diagram below) that could be described as a safe discussion arena in which different stakeholders feel free to discuss their views with one another without being afraid that everything what is said in this arena is ‘on the street’ the next day. This was seen as a first stepping stone to accommodate and integrate different perspectives and to engage different stakeholders in a constructive way.

Result EST-Frame Nanofood-workshop: “Break through the waiting game”

waiting game

So, the workshop ended up with a paradox: a ‘closed arena’ on the basis of confidentiality might be the best start to engage society and the broader public on a dialogue around the opportunities and challenges of nanofood. Such a closed-confidential beginning could provide a productive space for interaction (Krabbenborg 2013) and this is crucial for building mutual trust. Trust is a prerequisite for open communication and transparency and, therefore, the development of a societal incubator could pave the way for a more socially inclusive development of nanofood.

The TranSTEP approach and nanofood

Discussing what seems to be the most urgent issues and challenges of emerging technologies can be intensive and time-consuming, as we experienced in our workshop, but it can result in perspectives that try to open up debates and accommodate a broader array of perspectives. Such an approach seems necessary if one strives for the societal embedding of new technologies that might provide solutions for public goals most people can agree on. In this sense the first step of ‘situation analysis’ of TranSTEP has proven itself to be a useful approach in our workshop.

But TranSTEP could also be useful for the follow-up of our workshop that was announced and that has to be borne (particularly) by people of NanoNextNL.

  • Firstly, the process steps and guidelines for using available assessment tools identified by TranSTEP could help by structuring a dialogue that brings together the various perspectives that people have on nanofood-related controversies. This implies the practical development of the idea of the ‘societal incubator’ that came to the fore at the end of the workshop.
  • Secondly, it could further help to integrate the different dimensions of a complex problem with ‘collaborative problem framing’, but now also with a broader group including societal stakeholders.
  • Thirdly, as part of the process, specific cases could be identified for method reflection and an assessment review and new assessments are needed for a more sound basis that could improve the development and decision-making in the context of nanofood in a more legitimate and integrated way.

What are the challenges in this case for implementing a TranSTEP approach?

The main institutional challenge is probably finding sufficient financing to convene a TranStep group that can take up the development of the ‘societal incubator’ and give impetus to the dialogue and discussion with other societal stakeholders. Other challenges for implementing TranSTEP in the Dutch case of nanofood are:

  • Distribution and specification of the different responsibilities, particularly between policy-makers and industry
  • The roles of NGOs and other societal stakeholders: in which stage of development are they (actively) engaged?
  • Finding a concrete nanofood case that (a) is interestingly enough to discuss for other societal stakeholders, (b) can be debated without private interests (e.g. trade secrets) being a constant stumbling block, and (c) doesn’t raise the suspicion of cartel formation.


CSDN (Commission Societal Dialogue Nanotechnology) (2011). Verantwoord verder met nanotechnologie. Bevindingen maart 2009-januari 2011 (in Dutch). Amsterdam: CSDN (available at:

Fischer, A.R.H.; H. van Dijk, J. de Jonge, G. Rowe, L.J. Frewer (2012). ‘Attitudes and attitudinal ambivalence change towards nanotechnology applied to food production’. Public Understanding of Science, Online 24 April 2012, DOI: 10.1177/0963662512440220.

Krabbenborg, L. (2013). Involvement of civil society actors in nanotechnology: creating productive spaces for interaction. Enschede: Ipskamp.

Ronteltap, A., R. van Veggel, J. Voordouw, A. Fischer and D. Stijnen (2012). Consumentenperceptie van nanotechnologieën in voedsel en landbouw: een verdieping richting communicatie (in Dutch). Wageningen: Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research.

Stijnen, D., R. van Veggel, A. Fischer, A. Ronteltap, E. de Bakker, S. Minten, J. Voordouw, A. van der Sluis and M. Noordam (2011). Consumentenperceptie van nanotechnologieën in voedsel en landbouw:een eerste verkenning (in Dutch). Wageningen: Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research.

Van Est, R., B. Walhout, V. Rerimassie, D. Stemerding, L. Hanssen (2012). Governance of Nanotechnology in the Netherlands – Informing and Engaging in Different Social Spheres. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 10, 6-26.