Nanotechnology in agriculture and food – the ETC group is against it

The environmental group ETC today released a report strongly opposed to what they refer to as “the atomic modification of food”. This is, of course, what we used to call “cooking”. ETC are now focusing their campaign against nanotechnology onto the agriculture and food industries, perhaps in the hope of replaying the controversy about genetic modification of food. What the report reveals, though, is the slow evolution of ETC’s muddled thinking on the subject.

There is some progress – ETC is now much more explicit about the possible benefits nanotechnology can bring. I very much welcome this statement, for example: “ETC acknowledges that nanotech could bring useful advances that might benefit the poor (the fields of sustainable energy, clean water and clean production appear promising…”. They also emphasise that the debate must go further than simply considering questions of safety. But still, when in doubt about what to criticise, it is the toxicological issues that they consistently return to. And here some of their biggest scientific misconceptions get trotted out again. “The nanoscale moves matter out of the realm of conventional chemistry and physics into “quantum mechanics” imparting unique characteristics to traditional materials – and unique health and safety risks”, the report states early on, and it later refers to “serious toxicity issues of quantum property changes”. But, ironically, it’s by thinking about food and the products of agriculture that we should see that this view that nanoparticles are especially toxic as a class due to quantum effects just can’t be tenable – many or even most food ingredients are naturally nanostructured or contain nanoparticles, but quantum mechanics plays no role in their properties and certainly doesn’t make them especially toxic. If you don’t want to ingest nanoparticles, you should stop drinking milk.

The results of this confusion are apparent in their discussion of nanotechnology in the agrochemical industry. Here there’s a lot of emphasis on the reformulation of agrochemicals in nanoscaled dispersions and in encapsulated and controlled release systems. I think this is an accurate reading of what the industry is concentrating on. But why are the properties of the reformulated products different? ETC admits to some uncertainty – “ETC is not in a position to evaluate whether or not pesticides formulated as nanosized droplets… exhibit property changes akin to the “quantum effects” exhibited by engineered nanoparticles.” But nonetheless, they add, “the impetus for formulating pesticides on the nanoscale is the changed behaviour of the reformulated product”. Here they are missing the point in a big way.

It’s not that any given different pesticide molecule behaves differently when it’s in a nanoscale emulsion than when it’s in a bulk solution; it’s simply that a higher proportion of the active molecules reach the destination where they do their job, and many fewer are wasted. Is this a good thing? If you are using this technology to weaponise a biological or chemical agent, it’s certainly frightening, and ETC are quite right to point out that this technology, like so many in the agrochemical industry, is a dual-use one. But from the point of view of environmental protection and the health of agricultural workers it is entirely a good thing – pesticides are toxic and potentially dangerous chemicals, and if the desired effect can be achieved with a smaller total pesticide burden that’s got to be a good thing. A scientist working formulating agrochemicals once told me “Currently we operate like a hospital that, rather than giving its patients medicines, sprays the hospital car park with antibiotics and hopes the visitors carry enough in on their feet to have some effect”. Finding ways to use powerful chemicals in more frugal and targeted ways seems a positive step forward to me. To elaborate on one example that ETC mention, Syngenta has been working on a long-lasting insecticide treatment for mosquito netting. This seems to me to be an appropriate, low cost and environmentally low impact contribution to a major problem of the developing world – malaria – and I would struggle to find anything about this sort of development one could sensibly oppose.

I’ve already discussed my views on ETC’s thesis that the replacement of commodities like cotton by nano-treated artificial fibres will greatly disadvantage the developing world below, and I’ll not add anything to that. I’ll simply point to the deep inconsistency of claiming on the one hand that nanotechnology poses a threat to farmers by taking markets away, and on the other hand being worried by the idea of new uses for crops as industrial feedstocks.

The section on nanotechnology in food manages to lose even more conviction. In the face of the difficulty of finding very much to get hold of, once again the theme of nanoparticle toxicity recurs. Food additives are being prepared in new, nanoscaled forms, and these haven’t been separately tested. They give as an example lycopene, a naturally occurring nutrient that BASF is bringing to market in a synthetic, nanodispersed form. They quote a patient explanation from BASF that once this stuff reaches the gut it behaves in just the same way as natural lycopene, lamely agree that “the explanation that all food is nano-scale by the time it reaches the bloodstream makes sense a-priori”, and then add the complete non-sequitur that we should worry that it hasn’t been tested in its nanoscale form. “What nano-scale substances are in the pipeline that have already been approved as food additives at larger scales but may now be formulated at the nano-scale with altered properties?” they ask. Let’s take this very slowly – food additives aren’t generally things that are developed on large scales – they’re molecules, and the usual state they arrive at the food manufacturer, and in which the consumer eats them, isn’t in large lumps, but in solution – i.e. about as nanodispersed as it is possible to get.

As in the first ETC report on nanotechnology, The Big Down, it isn’t that real things to worry about aren’t identified. The issues that surround “smart dust” and universal distributed intelligence are serious ones that need some real discussion, and it’s quite right for ETC to highlight this. There are very many very worrying aspects about the way the agri-food industry operates both in the developed and the developing worlds, and left unchecked I’m sure that developments in nanotechnology and nanomedicine could well end up being used in very negative ways. But as before, if ETC showed a bit more discrimination in what they criticised and a bit more understanding of the underlying science their contribution would be a lot more worthwhile.

I rather suspect that this report has been rushed out to hit the Thanksgiving slow news patch in the USA. Maybe it would have been better if ETC had sat on it a little longer, long enough to sort out their misunderstandings and get their message straight.

5 thoughts on “Nanotechnology in agriculture and food – the ETC group is against it”

  1. Hi Richard,
    Obviously there is a lot here I could take issue with and discuss but I think you are once again misrepresenting the discussion on nanomaterials and commodity replacement. once is acceptable – twice is just sloppy!

    You write here of ” deep inconsistency of claiming on the one hand that nanotechnology poses a threat to farmers by taking markets away, and on the other hand being worried by the idea of new uses for crops as industrial feedstocks.” This is to miss the point, as made in the report, that there are different kinds of farmers.

    So, on the one hand, replacing natural cotton fibres with artificial fibres (whether nano or otherwise) is likely to hit small and developing world cotton farmers hardest – thats where over 90 percent of cotton production comes from, they are most vulnerable to economic changes, have less other options to hedge their livelihoods against and are at the mercy of large commodity traders such as Cargill who can play cotton regions against each other to push down prices. On the other hand having the technology to turn cheap cellulose sources (eg cotton trash, corn stalks, soy husks, wood pulp or whatever) into nanofibres allows the fibre producers to shop around for large quantities of cellulose at next to nothing prices. Since this stuff is already regarded as rubbish and plentifully available its not going to be a moneyearner for the farmers. Who will benefit are either the very largest agribusiness farmers who can make a slim profit on this trash by efficiently offering a large quantity or, more likely, the processors and traders who can invest in the technology in order to turn what was previously just rubbish (eg cotton trash) into a new product with value that they can offer into their existing fibres market. I’m thinking Cargill again here since this is effectively what they do with PLA (so called ‘natureworks’ bioplastic) – they recapture the waste from one industrial process (ethanal or glucose production, i can’t recall which) and make a high end product (plastic). Good for Cargill, of marginal value for agribusiness corn farmers who supply them, of absolutely no use to small corn farmers around the world who continue to watch global corn prices plummet.

    In your earlier post you made it sound as though we were being short sighted in not seeing the impact of extractive industries on the south or cotton production on water use . Once again you misrepresented the article you were referring to which acknowledged the environmental and social costs of existing commodity production in the south but went on to address the real world implications of rapid change. The point is not taht changes in production are all bad but rather that rapid changes in production are most likely to benefit the rich and further hurt the poor and vulnerable. Your argument would be valid if nanomaterials were being developed as part of a managed process away from harmful commodity production that included investment and support in new means of livelihood for rubber tappers, copper miners, cotton farmers etc. That however is far from the case. National economies in the south are continuing to be planned on the assumption that these commodities will still be valuable in a decades time and nobody is taking reponsibility for cushioning such transition – all that is left to the cruel fist of the global market. Nanotubes for example may be more expensive than copper now but the price is falling and could do so very rapidly if new scalable production techniques are discovered relevant to copper replacement (eg as transistors on chips or even more conventional electronic wiring). When this happens price falls in the copper industry will be met first with lay offs or at best reduction in wages and certainly not by improved environmental or human rights standards. For certain the companies profiting by replacing copper (carbon nanotube producers) won’t be automatically plowing their new found profits into schemes to support livelihood development for vulnerable ex copperminers in Zambia and Bolivia. Your historical cue here is to look at the starvation in India that followed the replacement of Indigo with synthetic dyes.


  2. Jim, I appreciate your comments. Your point about the implications of a very rapid pace of change is a fair one in principle, but I think in practise you are greatly overestimating the likely rate at which the commodities you are talking about could be replaced in reality. Perhaps this is not entirely your fault, as if one believed everything one read in the more breathless nanotechnology boosterism one would probably be expecting to disappear into orbit on a nanotube space elevator sometime around next summer, but the reality isn’t like that. There has been a servicable synthetic substitute for rubber, for example, since the 1940s, yet the natural variety still commands large-scale markets. Why? Because it’s a good material, and growing the stuff in trees is still pretty cost-effective. As for nanotubes, I would remind you yet again – they cost 200 pounds a gram, and at that price you still get a random mixture of the semiconducting and conducting. Copper is about $3000 a tonne at the moment, that’s roughly 100,000 times cheaper. I believe that nanotubes will get somewhat cheaper, but this gulf is so massive that bulk replacement of copper remains, to put it mildly, somewhat far off.

    As regards cellulose, I believe that high-grade industrial cellulose for processes like making cellophane, rayon and the new cotton-like fabrics like Tencel comes exclusively from eucalyptus. I suspect that eucalyptus plantations aren’t spectacularly good for the environment either, but I don’t see your scenario of cotton growers being driven out of business by low grade cellulosic wastes like corn husks as being terribly realistic. On the other hand an economic process by which low grade cellulosic waste could be turned into ethanol or methanol really would be commercially exciting, but I wouldn’t have thought you would object too much to crude oil producers being put on the spot a bit.

    Anyway, this is all economics rather than nanotechnology, and I would welcome your comments on the more technical side of my critique.

  3. This discussion seems to illustrate the problem with trying to categorize every technology that can be measured in nanometers and has commercial applications as “nanotechnology”. This expansive definition includes much of “chemistry” and “biology”. Trying to come up with either sensible policies or scare pieces is difficult when your target is defined by nothing more than a length scale. Imagine how illogical it would be to have a critique or policy discussion involving meter-scale technologies.

  4. This conversation confuses me.
    The facts I seem to have pulled from it are:
    Just because it’s smaller does not change it. This is true, I have worked with nanoparticles and apart from being smaller, there is no difference chemically that could cause any form of toxicity.
    Nanoparticulate materials will be used as clothing materials to the detriment of lesser economically developed countries. This is again, not true. NYLON (a synthetic replacement for cotton)has been about for ages but cotton is still here, and as quite rightly pointed out nanotech is really really expensive. It ould not be viable to use this as a commercial product for use in clothing.
    Th economy of the world will change overnight because of nanotechnology. Wrong. Nanotechnology has been about for years and years already. People have been making nano robots, guitars, cameras etc for years. The research has all been done, theres nothing to stop. The kind of nano research that there seems to be any protest about is just making things we already have smaller. I think I can draw on one of the previously made points to say that the world will not blanketly take up this technology overnight, bankrupting or leaving behind lesser economically developed countries etc. These technologies will eventually be available to these countries because after producing them there are no other cost involving running especially in the case of a pesticide.
    And finally, the legal stuff. Anyone who works in chemistry could call themselves a nanotechnologist. Atoms are measured in nanometers, picometers angstroms etc etc, and this is where I think some people have missed the point
    Industry obviously wanted a shiny name for their product “Nanotechnology” was their descision. A name that has somehow spawned dissent when all it means is “The same stuff we’ve been peddling for ages, just smaller, and more expensive”
    I hope I haven’t rambled on, and this is of some interest.


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