Unique nanotechnology products and processes are entering large-scale use in the environment without regulatory oversight. Materials and processes approved at conventional scales (macro or micro) do not require re-examination when used at the nanoscale even though the impact on the ecosystem – including on biodiversity – could be radically different. A recent event on First Nations’ land in New Mexico using what appears to be a nanotech self-assembly process should be a warning to government and industry.
Is the Grey/Green Goo Brouhaha the Industry's Second Blunder?
The threat of Grey Goo (nanoscale mechanical robots reproducing uncontrollably) has become the itsty-bitsy boogey man, handily dismissed by industry and Nobel laureates as a technical impossibility. But they are ignoring the very real and present dangers that nanotechnologies pose, including the potential toxicity of nanoparticles and the farther-reaching implications of nanobiotechnology.
New Developments: While claiming not to have reversed their position against commercialization of Terminator seeds, some Gene Giants are continuing to seek new patents on genetic seed sterilization and others are boldly advocating in favor of GURTs (genetic use restriction technology) in intergovernmental negotiations. Stung by negative publicity related to the escape of DNA from genetically modified (GM) plants, industry continues to "greenwash" Terminator by promoting it as a biosafety tool for containing unwanted geneflow from GM plants. Biotech company Maxygen has unveiled a new technology designed to banish foreign DNA from GM plants as a way to silence critics of genetic engineering. ETC Group calls it the "Exorcist" technology.
Prince Charles' concerns about the emerging revolution in nanotechnology have catapulted tabloid headlines about "grey goo" (and impending doom) onto front pages around the world. Industry fears that the great GMO (genetically modified organisms) debate is about to go down to the nanoscale inhabited by atoms and molecules. But the virulent attacks against the Prince may only be the latest of a series of technical and tactical mistakes made by nanotech's over-eager proponents.
A mix of Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes (B.A.N.G.) make the world come ‘round – for the USA!
In the USA, senior science policy makers and industry players are devising a new-style 'Manhattan' or 'Apollo' project to merge strategic technologies at the nano-scale (one billionth of a meter). Their aim is to combine biotechnology, information technology and cognitive (neural) science with atomtechnology at the nano scale (see The Big Down). The operative unit in information science is the Bit; nanotechnology manipulates Atoms; cognitive science deals with Neurons and biotech exploits the Gene. Together they make B.A.N.G. Merging these technologies into one, proponents say, will drive a huge industrial revolution and a societal "renaissance" that will guarantee American dominance - military and economic - through the 21st century.
The first and greatest impact of nano-scale technologies may come with the merger of nanotech and biotech - a newly recognized discipline called nanobiotechnology. While Gray Goo has grabbed the headlines, self-replicating nanobots are not yet possible. The more likely future scenario is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that end up behaving in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways - get ready for "Green Goo!"
The Year of Playing Dangerously
Thirteen months ago, the agbiotech industry wakened to a nightmare. Illegal and unwelcome, the presence of genetically-modified (GM) maize was reported smack in the crop's center of genetic origin in Mexico. There's never a good time for a political/ecological calamity, but the beleaguered Gene Giants were already struggling to persuade consumers, following the Taco Debacle (Starlink), that companies could control their inventions and their inventory. The seed companies were also hoping to arm-twist EU ministers into lifting the ban on GM products in Europe.
Extract of Andean Root Crop Patented for “Natural Viagra” Properties
Indigenous peoples' and farmers' organizations from the Andes and the Amazon gathered at the offices of the Ecological Forum in Lima, Peru on 28 June 2002 to formally denounce US patents on maca, the high-altitude Andean plant (of the Cruciferae [mustard] family) that has been grown for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Puna highlands of Peru, both as a staple food crop and for medicinal purposes. Today, maca-based products are commonly promoted as natural enhancers of sexual function and fertility, and demand for maca is growing in the US, Europe and Japan.
Update (June 2002)
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the global area devoted to transgenic or genetically modified (GM) crops has increased more than 30-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 52.6 million hectares in 2001. The statistics show an extraordinarily rapid market introduction. More astonishing is the concentration in ownership and control of GM crop technology. At this point in time, GM crop technology is dominated almost exclusively by a single company, in limited geographical areas.
Nanotech Particles Penetrate Living Cells and Accumulate in Animal Organs
Are nanoparticles polluting the environment? Researchers have just begun to ask the most basic questions about the impact of new nano-materials on human health and the environment. Evidence of nanoparticle contamination in living organisms and unanswered questions about potential dangers of new forms of carbon require urgent societal review.