Nanotech Battles Looming?

By Keith Kloor | December 21, 2011 12:02 pm

Is Marion Nestle stoking nanotechnology fears here? Or is she trying to head off an ugly variation of the GMO wars? I’m not sure, but this is what she advises:

Companies using this technology should be telling the public more about it. Nanotechnology is technical, difficult to grasp intuitively, “foreign,” and not under personal control. This places it high on the scale of “dread-and-outrage.”

Does it belong there? Who knows? But the sooner its risks and benefits are assessed, the better. Otherwise it risks becoming the next GMO in public perception.

A reader in that Atlantic thread feels pretty strongly that Nestle is “poisoning the discourse.” Anyone have thoughts on this?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: nanotechnology
MORE ABOUT: nanotechnology
  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    There is already a lot of activity in Europe and a few other places to define potential risks of nanoparticles.  As someone who has been involved a lot with nanotechnology over 30+ years, I am always a bit puzzled by the kinds of concerns that are raised.  We are, at a cellular and molecular level, all the product of rather exquisite nanotechnology.  There is also not any magical transition between nano and micro technologies, where suddenly nano-particles become dangerous.  Soot, dust, carbon black, and most conventional pigments (organic and inorganic) have always contained a significant fraction of “nanoparticles”.  For example, when you decide to make nano-scale pigment, it is not like you are doing anything much different than before, since that pigment likely always contained nanoparticles… you are only eliminating a fraction of larger particles and using only the smallest.
    There is always visceral resistance, hype, and a lot of fear when anything is perceived (in this case wrongly!) as very new/different technology.  Concerns about nano-technology are IMO greatly overblown, but not surprising.

  • Mary

    Yes, I do feel strongly that she’s doing that (that’s me over there). First, she’s not offering any knowledge about the applications of that technology. It’s just like seeding the doubt about GMOs without offering any benefits. (“Doubt is our product” has been heavily adopted by the foodie fear team.)  And she’s also implying that GMOs are unsafe–which her acolytes assume–and she rarely disabuses them of that.
    I am enormously surprised that I wasn’t called a shill for Big Nano yet. Which would have made me giggle.
    Here’s another take on that from someone in the field: http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/nanotechnology/the-nanotechnology-and-gmo-link-repeatedagain

  • Matt B

    @ Setev F,

    You are right on. Her article makes it sound like all of nonotechnology is made up of entirely new (RISKY!!!) chemical compositions that the world has never seen before when the vast majority are just the really really tiny bits of the chemical world you always lived in……….hey many of the beloved aerosols of climate science are nanoparticles!

    To be fair, it does make sense to tread careful with some of the nanomaterials, especially if they are of novel composition. My background is in particle technology and I haven’t met a single colleague that wasn’t aware of this risk and that this risk always needs to be addressed. But to generalize this to all foods? Isn’t nano-sugar an oxymoron? 

    So, is she stoking nano fears? Looks like it. Is she trying to head off a GMO-type backlash? It more looks like she’s trying to start one. Is she “poisoning the discussion?” She can say what she wants, and the nano group has to defend their position with science and data, so no I don’t think she is poisoning the discussion. It is a discussion that sooner or later was bound to happen. But, the lack of informed detail in her article, on a subject where there is plenty of material available, is unimpressive especially coming from a Cal molecular biologist.

  • Matt B

    @ Mary;

    “Big Nano”? Nice one, get a copyright on that!!!!

  • Mary

    @Matt: I know, I was so waiting for that to happen too…
    But actually, that’s one of the more interesting things about this field. There’s no single bogeyman like Monsanto, so I think their aim will be harder to accomplish.

  • Matt B

    @ Mary,

    Agreed, the nano world is pretty fragmented. I must say I’m pretty jaded about the entire nano enterprise. There is some great work being done in specific areas but it seems to me the nano crew has more than their fair share of scientific hustlers.  

    That’s one reason I’m not too worried about the nano gang destroying civilization; some of these guys couldn’t make a ham sandwich. I doubt they can pull off 20% of what is claimed achievable by the various interested parties. But the hustlers know how to draw in suckers err I mean investors; if they every join forces with the micro-electro-mechanical (MEMS) ruffians then keep an eye on your wallet! 

  • Mary

    @Matt: all tech has that aspect of some promise, some not so promising. Some trivial.
    But I’ve seen Marion’s adherents use their limited knowledge to try to interfere with important legislation on food security. One of her close buddies (and I personally know they are close) was working very hard to get people to oppose food security legislation for the developing world because it had the word “biotechnology” in the law on one location. They lied about the reasons, and launched a big campaign to interfere with that.
    If the foodie masses had were able to distinguish the babies and the bathwater, it would be one thing. But they aren’t able to do that–and their presumed thought leaders are not helping. They will put it all in one bucket and try to prevent the use broadly. I’ve seen it.

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    #3 Matt,
    “Isn’t nano-sugar an oxymoron?”
    I was once handed a sample for size characterization (in China) which was claimed to be “nano-tea”.  Since I could see the particles were mostly over 5 microns using an optical microscope, I didn’t bother with a more careful analysis.  They were saying that ‘nano-tea’ would have better flavor than normal tea… maybe ‘nano-flavor? ;-) .  Hype is everywhere.

  • Matt B

    @ 8 Steve F – Ha, I tell you what, the Chinese don’t miss a beat when it comes to sales and hype. They will keep throwing the ideas, good or crappy, straightforward or disingenuous, against the wall until something hits. Tough and worthy competitors!

    @7 Mary – I don’t know anything about Marion Nestle, and your characterization of her passively condoning the shenanigans of her acolytes is interesting. There is no stopping scientific crankery, I guess, & all you can do is speak up for reasoned dialogue when you have something to contribute. Thanks for the IEEE link, that guy was right on it, & good luck with the “foodie masses”! 

  • Keith Kloor

    Mary (7)

    What legislation are you referring to? And what came of it?

  • Mary

    @Keith: S.384 The Global Food Security Act of 2009
    It was discussed here http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/04/01/715410/-Bill-to-Mandate-GMO-Research-for-Africa-S-Asia-Passes-Unanimously by Jill Richardson–she’s close with Marion, and she’s on the board of the Organic Consumers Assn. But there were other diaries in which I was assaulted for saying that it didn’t do what Jill said about GMOs. And this misinformation was also picked up by the foodie orgs, Credo, HuffPo, etc, who demanded calls to Congress, which were made.
    Opponents claimed it *mandated* use of GMOs. Lugar had to put out a statement about the lies that were being foisted on his colleagues. You can find it here: http://lugar.senate.gov/food/legislation/
    A small number of critics claim the bill would mandate that U.S. assistance be used to promote genetically modified (GM) agricultural technologies, and that U.S. food aid would be conditioned on recipient countries approving the use of GM products. These are gross misrepresentations that have no factual foundation.
    Let me be clear. The bill does not require the use of GM technology by any farmers, implementing partners or government agencies. It does not condition the receipt of food aid on a recipient country’s adoption of GM. The use of any technology must ultimately be left to individual farmers based on their particular circumstances.
    I’m not sure how it resolved in the end. I thought it stalled. But these folks were actively working to withhold food security dollars from developing countries based on a single word in this bill.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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