ARLINGTON, Va. — Nanotechnology has the potential to create a big little bang in agriculture — helping boost production and increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.

Research has accelerated in the last ten years, accordig to speakers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Feb. 20 Agricultural Outlook Forum workshop on nanotechnology.

Panelist Lloyd Whitman, deputy director for the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, said the U.S. launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000 to promote and coordinate U.S. nanotech research and development. Since 2001, he said more than $22 billion has been invested in nanotechnology research across several agencies within the government. The funding for fiscal year 2014 is $1.7 billion.

Panelist Norman Scott, with the department of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, said converging technologies — biotechnology, nanotechnology, information science and cognitive science — could increase food production to for the growing population. Scott said research with nanotechnology in agriculture only began in about 2003, with funding in recent years at about $9 million per year.

Nanotechnology is the science of working with atoms and molecules to build devices that are extremely small — a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter — and Scott said there are already nanotechnology products in the marketplace. He predicted more revolutionary progress by 2020.

Since 2005, Scott said that 1,628 consumer products using nanotechnology have been introduced to market U.S., with 200 related to food and beverage, supplements or storage functions.

International applications of nanotechnology now include a storage bag lined with nanoparticles to maintain the shelf life of cassava and nanopatterned anti-microbial paper in fruit and vegetable containers that prolong quality, Scott said.

Gains could be made with “re-engineering” of crops, animals and microbes at the genetic and cellular level, he said. Scott said that nanobiosensors may someday be used for identification of pathogens, toxins, and bacteria in foods.

Nanotechnology could someday be used to deliver micro nutrients, nutraceuticals, and vitamins in foods for enhanced human health, he said. For packaging, nanotechnology could spur advances in food packaging and food contact materials for quality assessment and enhanced shelf life. Panelist Sean Ireland, with New Technologies and Market Ventures, Verso Paper Corp, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, said that nano cellulose crystals offer the lure of reduced packaging weight, he said.

“If you take all the packages in the entire U.S. and start reducing their weight by 25% to 30%, you will see a huge shift in how much gas is needed and how much can be transported,” he said.

Nano cellulose can also be used to detect changing oxygen levels in food packaging. Ireland said nano cellulose has big potential in the years ahead, but challenges remain in gearing up production plants.

Scott raised the distant possibility that nanotechnology could someday replace fats and sugars — or prevent absorption of fats and sugars — to help defeat obesity.

“The point is with nanotechnology we can move toward these goals,” he said.

 Scott said consumer concerns about nanotechnology could make the fruits of the research vulnerable. Questions about the unknown effects of nanotechnology on the environment, health and biodiversity have been raised, he said. Regulatory oversight of nanotechnology has also been questioned, and resistance of food companies to engage and communicate about research and products could be problematic for consumer acceptance.