Toxic Food Nano Poison and a Slow Lingering Death for the Human Race?

Coming To A Fruit Bowl Near You? A scientist injecting fruit with toxic nanoparticles before feeding it to your children to make lots of money?

Friends of the Earth in Australia, who have been running a long anti nanotech campaign have just released a new report prompting sensationalist and confused headlines headlines like this – “Is nanotechnology a toxic food nano poison in Australia?“As always, it’s a useful excersise to replace the word “nano” with “chemical”or “nuclear” in order to ascertain whether there is anything specific to nano in these types of reports or whether it is boilerplate anti technology ranting. In this case the answer is initially no.

The report gives a reasonably comprehensive overview of the applications of nanotechnologies to food (for more details see this report)but by half way through falls into the old trap of confusing nanotechnology with genetic engineering and synthetic biology and raising the spectre of self replicating synthetic organisms on the rampage. Using the FoE argument that this justifies a moratorium on nanotechnology, should we also not have a moratorium on information technology, without which we would not have genomics or synthetic biology? In any case, invoking the precautionary principle banning everything that you do not understand is a rather lazy option – doing the scientific studies is much harder, takes longer, but ultimately leads to the responsible use of technologies.

After that the report just plummets into a boilerplate rant with lots of cut and paste stuff about privacy concerns due to nanotech, the benefits of organic farming and railing against inadequate government regulation, which is a real pity after such a bright start and doesn’t add anything new.

Painting the image of a world where evil scientists in league with giant multinational corporations will be ramming toxic things down your throat to make fat profits worked well in the GMO debate in the 90’s, partly because there was a grain of truth in it. In the same way many VCs have spent the last ten years trying to get the dot com business model to work in other areas of technology, many NGO’s have not moved on from the days of GMO’s. One outcome of all the public consultation over the last few years has been that when people understand little about nanotechnology they find it all quite exciting, and aren’t particularly concerned, which is bad news for anyone wanting it banned.

The problem with this type of report is that there is very little scientific evidence to base any arguments on, so much of the shock factor comes from imagining what may happen, rather than being based on reality – it could be ‘gray goo’ or new variant Creuzfeld-Jakob disease all over again.

I also feel rather uneasy with the general tone and the imagery of this kind of report, which often paints science as being something vaguely sinister. Although many people hanker after the kinder gentler days of our agrarian past where household lighting was generated from whale blubber and most medical procedures involved a saw, a pair of pliers, lots of screaming and a painful death from gangrene, we should remember that science has given us some undoubted benefits.

Rather than attempting to terrify a rather uninterested public for the sake of a few headlines, an unbiased assessment of the risks and the benefits without all the moratoria and the rather silly images of scientists injecting fruit with chemicals would be of far better use. The debate about nanotechnology is far less polarised than many of the NGO’s think, with most in the scientific community being both reasonable and responsible rather than rabid transhumamists. Perhaps the real target of the enviromentalists ire should be Ray Kurzweil and the other proponents of various radical forms of molecular nanotechnology who are unable to distinguish Star Trek from reality.

A realistic assessment of how we are going to feed nine billion people without using technology would also be useful. While we in the developed world are rich enough to choose between potatoes grown using excrement or synthetic fertilizer, most of the rest of the world is simply hungry. Wishing an increasingly miserable existence on the developing world may be friendly to the earth, but not to the human race.

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  1. Pingback: Food, Glorious Food: Kitchens in 2063 | For better, for worse: Emerging Technologies in 2013

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