There are two main groups hard at work trying to establish similarities between nanotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs): the press and NGOs.
In the case of the press, their motivation is quite simple. It’s about selling papers and establishing or re-establishing, as the case may be, the particular media outlet’s hard-hitting investigative journalism credentials.
For NGOs the explanation is somewhat more obscure simply because we can’t see the traces of greed on it. Instead what we get with NGOs is what one might call, in psychological terms, transference.
What they are really angry about involves wars and their loss of privacy, but, most importantly, the threat of big business doing something for profit that puts them somehow at risk. Nanotechnology just happens to be a good scapegoat for them to address those fears and concerns.
So in line with this, we get from the venerable Atlantic a kind of amalgam of these two in an abysmal piece entitled “Is Nanotechnology the New GMO?" I say amalgam because on the one hand it is written for the mainstream press, but on the other hand it is authored by someone who is not just a journalist but a professor of food with book titles to her credit such as: "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health." I don't think I am extrapolating too much by thinking that the title draws comparisons to the sentiments of your typical NGO.
Anyway, let’s start with the question in the title of this piece. If I may offer a question in response: In what way could nanotechnology be like GMO? Of course, at the very end of the article we discover it’s the usual idea that nanotechnology has been somehow thrust upon people and as soon as they find out about it, they will reject it—in some regions of the world.
As worn thin as this idea is in the mainstream media, the general public keeps on dismissing it as a source of concern. No harm in beating a dead horse, I guess, though some may feel it to be a bit unseemly.
But there are other shockers in this piece. For instance, we get the unequivocal statement: “Nanotechnology science is new, and the industry is unregulated.”
Oh dear, where to begin? First off, nanotechnology is not an industry and never will be an industry any more than silicon is an industry. Nanotechnology enables products. All of these products must meet consumer guidelines for safety, i.e. they are highly regulated.
Now if you want to discuss regulations of nanomaterials and not a “nanotechnology industry” (which one would expect to include AFMs and STMs), then that’s an interesting discussion. But even there the so-called “industry” has been working under the regulations that have governed the chemical industry for decades. To say that the use of these nanomaterials is unregulated is just misleading, if not ignorant.
Since the author is a supposed expert on the food industry, she gets to cleverly play on the emotional responses of the readers here by discussing nanotechnology in relation to food.
Of course, the food one eats triggers a highly emotional response, like discovering what’s really in your hot dog. So playing on speculation and fear mongering really gets you a long way on that subject.
Despite the reporter’s expertise on the food industry, what I would like to know is what the reporter was thinking when she states: “Food companies often don't know whether or not they are using these materials.”
What?! The food industry is made up all sorts of scientists devising processes and ingredients for producing food. If you think for one minute that nobody along the entire food production chain knows exactly what is in the food they are selling to the public, you have been misinformed.
What we seem to have here in this piece is what was revealed as the real cause of the Friends of the Earth’s concerns about nanotechnology in food: “What it comes down to, I’d recommend that consumers veer away from processed foods.”
A preaching nanny hardly seems to be helpful on this issue.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.