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Nanotechnology: Booming Below the Radar

2 May 2014 Feature
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The IUF is pleased to publish the third in a series of articles on new food and agricultural technologies and their implications from the ETC Group (formerly RAFI), a civil society organization with which the IUF has collaborated for many years.

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Companies investing in nanotechnology - the manipulation of natural and synthetic materials at the atomic and molecular level - have learned from the GM debate and have toned down announcements of their research and the commercial introduction of new products. Yet the French government estimates that there are more than 3,400 nanotech products in the marketplace while the US patent office sees applications doubling every two years. In 2004, 54 companies collectively produced only 65 tonnes of very expensive carbon nanotubes, but today a single company can produce between 300 and 500 tonnes, much more cheaply, in a year.  An EU report concludes that every year around 300,000 tonnes of nanoparticles are dumped into the stratosphere, the water table or landfills.

The important thing about nano is that particles reduced to the nano-scale have a larger surface area that can make them more chemically reactive - the characteristics keep changing with the size. This is nanotech's attraction - and its risk.  

A substance that may be inert at the micro-or-macro-scale can assume hazardous characteristics at the nano-scale. Nanoparticles as such, by virtue of their size, therefore contain a heightened toxic potential. When the big push on nano began in 2000, there were few credible health or environmental risk assessment studies.  In the 14 years since, the number of studies remains embarrassingly low, but most of them warn of risks for workers or consumers. There is still no known method for limiting, controlling or even measuring human exposure to nanomaterials and processes in or outside the workplace. SwissRe, the second largest global reinsurer (i.e. issuer of insurance for insurance) insists that the risks are too high to insure.  

Nano may - or may not - be small in food and agriculture; commercialization at present has fallen short of the initial inflated estimates of the potential market growth. The biggest companies, who a decade ago bragged about potential nanoparticle formulations for everything from soft drinks to chocolate bars, have fallen silent - but that doesn't mean they are not active. Companies are exploring more than 3,000 nanopesticide applications and industry sources estimate that one side effect of the EU's REACH regulations will see about 15% of current pesticides pushed out of the market, leading to nanoformulations of the surviving pesticides that are presumed safe.

At least one European aid agency has tested microformulations (some reports say nanoformulations) of nutrient additives for school feeding programs in Morocco and Côte d'Ivoire and with rice in the Philippines.  Ceramic nanopore beads developed by a Dutch company are being tested by USAID to keep food aid and seed dry.

In 2007, the IUF joined with ETC to call for a global moratorium on nanotechnology until the technology's health and environmental risks could be thoroughly assessed. That hasn't happened. Nevertheless, regulatory agencies from Brussels to Beijing are concerned, and most nano toxicologists are convinced that the risks could be significant. What does a government do when it has spent tens of billions on nanotech research and has over 3000 products in the marketplace ranging from sunscreens and cosmetics to food additives and pesticides?  Hunker down.

Unlike the debate over GM and Terminator seeds or synthetic biology, nanotech does not have an obvious intergovernmental home.   At Rio +20, governments called upon the UN to establish global to local Technology Facilitation Mechanisms that would protect citizens from the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Since Rio, the UN hasn't moved much but a technology monitoring facility is still on the agenda. The G-77 and China - especially African and Latin American countries - are pressing for technology assessment as a cross-cutting contribution to the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Nothing established in the UN will meet the needs of workers and consumers but a technology assessment forum could become the place where social movements and civil society organizations catalyze global awareness and national or regional action. Unions should support the demand.