Nanotech ‘threatens markets for poor nations’ goods’

Silicon dioxide nanoribbon, which could be used as an ultrasensitive sensors for various gases Copyright: Accelrys www.accelrys.com

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[MONTREAL] The introduction of nanotechnologies could threaten markets for goods from developing countries, according to a presentation made yesterday at the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists in Montreal, Canada.

The claim was made by Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, a Canadian organisation that researches the socio-economic impacts of new technologies. Highlighting the lack of regulation for emerging technologies, Mooney called for a United Nations convention to evaluate their impacts, not only on health and the environment but also on society at large.

“Any new technology introduced to an unjust society will exacerbate the gap between rich and poor,” said Mooney. “In the current context, they will work against the poor.”

Mooney described how use of nanotechnologies in Northern countries has potential to affect the stability of markets for agricultural and industrial products from developing nations. Applications of nanotechnology to US cotton production, for example, will reduce markets for cotton from China, India and West Africa, said Mooney. “No one has told the cotton farmers in West Africa.”

Rubber trees producers in Malaysia and elsewhere, who are planting trees now in anticipation of harvests in 10 — 15 years, will be in financial trouble because of nanotechnologies that could make tyres that last longer than cars — or even their drivers, says Mooney.

Likewise, he said, while Bolivia is being encouraged to dig more, deeper mines, multinational mining companies are exploring nanotechnologies that will allow them to “step away from the mines” to extract or even recycle minerals.

New approaches such as these could, said Mooney, lead to reduced global demand at the same time as capacity for production increases in developing countries.

Mooney also warned of intellectual property issues, saying “it is ‘Wild West’ in terms of the patent system”.

“We should not make the mistake with nanotechnology that we made with biotechnology,” he said, stressing that in addition to looking at safety, it is important to ask “who owns it, who controls it”.

Mooney says the ETC is not against nanotechnologies, “in fact we love them, they are fascinating”, but says regulation is urgently needed. He ended his presentation by renewing the ETC Group’s call for an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies.

“There are 133 nano-products on the marketplace in the US,” said Mooney. “And not a single regulation on the planet.”

The head of bioethics at NASA, Paul Root Wolpe, also commented on the increasing role of ‘combination technologies’, for example the combination of nanotechnology and biotechnology. Root Wolpe warned that some researchers are exploring this potential without paying attention to who will regulate the resulting products and how.

“The science is racing ahead of the ethics,” he warned.