A Crusade Against Nanotechnology
By Diego Cevallos
The award-winning activist Pat Mooney travels the world calling for a moratorium on commercial development based on nanoparticles, pointing to what he says are their potentially harmful effects.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Developing countries aiming to commercially exploit nanotechnology is "quite a naive illusion", says Canadian activist Pat Mooney, winner of the 1985 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.
In his opinion, what these countries should and can do is move towards this new science, but only to prevent its potentially harmful impacts and to implement safety regulations.
Mooney, who leads the non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), based in Canada, travels around the world promoting a moratorium on nanotechnology -- manipulation at the atomic and molecular level -- until regulations of its use are put into place.
This new technology is being developed largely in countries of the industrialized North, but also in China, India, Brazil and Chile. Already on the market are some 700 foods, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products that contain nanoparticles, but there is no labeling requirement or evaluation of their potential impacts on health or the environment.
The defenders of nanotechnology are calling for development to continue, and they argue that in the future it will facilitate diagnosis and treatment of diseases like HIV/AIDS, cancer and tuberculosis, controlling toxicity in foods and soils, and purifying water.
Author of the book "Seeds of the Earth" (1979), a pioneering study of agricultural genetic resources, Mooney has dedicated most of his life to tracking the impacts of the biotechnology revolution. For his work he received the Alternative Nobel.
The activist spoke with Tierramérica during a recent visit to Mexico.
Tierramérica: You and your group have been proposing since 2002 a moratorium declaration on the development of nanotechnology. Do you really believe that is possible?
Mooney: "We still think that the moratorium is a smart proposal, appropriate for the current situation. But in reality we knew that it wouldn't necessarily happen. From the political perspective, it is going to be difficult."
- Even so you will insist on the moratorium?
- Yes, because it has provoked an advance in the debate. We have already gotten Greenpeace to support us, as well as other environmental and labor organizations in several countries. There is also a group of 26 governments that has already met -- once in Washington and once in Brussels -- to discuss regulating nanotechnology. Furthermore, the United Nations is considering the necessity of having international regulations on the impacts of new technologies. None of this existed before ETC called for a moratorium.
- Why halt nanotechnology when it could solve health problems and other types of problems? Some scientists warn that declaring a moratorium could create a divide similar to the digital divide between rich and poor.
- Because the impacts on health and the environment are potentially dangerous and there aren't currently any regulations. It could also be an economic blow to the countries of the South due to the substitution of raw materials. Nanotechnology is being used to substitute materials like rubber in tires, and in a few years the demand for natural rubber will fall dramatically. The same could happen with textile fibers, like cotton. Since 1997, the universities of Oxford and Montreal have demonstrated that titanium dioxide and zince oxide in nanoparticles, found in cosmetics and sunblocks, generate free radicals and could lead to genetic damage.
- Developing countries plan to compete in the nanotechnology market. What's your opinion of that?
- It's definitely important that the countries of the South have the scientific capabilities to monitor what is happening with this technological dynamic, evaluate it and follow up on its impact in their societies. But it is quite a naive illusion to think that they are going to compete in that market. They could enter this market, they will try to compete, but they will end up working for the transnational companies against their own populations.
- Where should the South direct its efforts?
- The countries of the South should affirm their technological diversity, that is, have a spectrum of technologies available, including nanotechnology, but without ignoring others they already have and which they need to revitalize, recuperate and reaffirm. Also, these countries need to have a much broader social debate, and it shouldn't happen like it is now, in the World Trade Organization, where they go without having clear ideas about the impact of this technology on global trade.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.