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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > NanoReg > The Politics of Fear and Anti-Nanotechnology Activism

John DiLoreto

In the fascinating world of politics, Tea Party activists have gained a reputation by claiming to possess the ability to solve complex social issues with simplistic solutions. At times the solutions appear to make sense but the basis for the solutions is often grounded in misrepresentations, half-truths and a basic disregard for facts. This philosophy is not restricted to day-to-day politics as seen by an ever-growing campaign of anti-nanotechnology initiatives.

November 17th, 2010

The Politics of Fear and Anti-Nanotechnology Activism

As any author will tell you, there are times when the ideas for such a creative endeavor can be slow in coming. Inspiration can strike at any moment and my current source of inspiration comes from a recent Tweet (Twitter posting for you newbies) that encourages individuals to make their voices heard to keep nanotechnology out of the certified organic food universe. Having been a certified organic producer and a member of Maryland's Organic Certification Board in a past life, I found this to be an intriguing intersection of nanotechnology and organics. Sadly, opponents of nanotechnology in the organic foods marketplace have resorted to Tea Party-like attacks which do little to promote a genuine discussion of the merits and potential risks of nanotechnology.

I'd like to highlight some of the most egregious claims made by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in its email campaign and recent newsletter but it's important that we recognize that this is only one example of the attacks that represent a broad campaign of disinformation and outright lies that I have seen in anti-nanotechnology blogs, articles, presentations and, yes, tweets.

The Premise

To begin with, those that extol the virtues of organic food appear to accept the premise that organics are healthier because they aren't made, processed or packaged with dangerous chemicals. This belief ignores the reality that even 'natural' or 'organic' herbicides and pesticides have their own safety issues, but I digress and I'll address that issue in a future column.

If you are to believe a recent OCA newsletter, then you believe that nanotechnology is evil and the likely cause of mankind's downfall. Clicking on a link to "take action" to prevent the use of nanotechnology in organic foods leads you to an email petition to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture. The petition contains several claims about the safety of nanotechnology and this leads to the heart of my concerns.

Just the Facts, Please

When taking sides on an issue being prepared with a few facts wouldn't hurt your cause. The email petition contains a few examples of how nanotechnology is portrayed using fear tactics that lack any scientific basis. One statement jumps right off the page: "Nanotechnology is inherently dangerous." What exactly is the basis for this? While some studies have shown specific nanomaterials to cause cellular changes in the laboratory, it's impossible to state that all nanomaterials are hazardous all the time. Every substance known to mankind can be deemed dangerous depending on the circumstances. A glass of water can be good for you but you can drown in just an inch of water.

Another part of the petition raises the stakes by stating that nanotechnology is "the most dangerous hi-tech poison of them all." The petition cites two examples of the danger of nanotechnology but the examples have only a tangential connection and no scientific evidence is presented or cited.

No one is saying that all nanomaterials are without potential risks but it's important to separate emotions from facts. For example, the OCA website rips General Mills for wanting to introduce "dangerous, untested" products of nanotechnology into organics. Think about this statement. If something is untested how do they know it's dangerous? If testing has been done let's take a look at the results and examine it from a scientific perspective.

All We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

The most disturbing aspect of this type of anti-nanotechnology campaign is the use of fear as a weapon of choice. Reasonable people can have a discussion about the merits of what can be included in organics but when it comes to carrying the day emotions will always trump the science. Every day I hear scientists making a case for specific scientific research results but when a person's mind is made up those results become meaningless because people will always believe what they want to believe.

The anti-nanotechnology-in-organics crowd is so hell-bent on promoting their cause that they could ultimately end up becoming a victim of their own success. In their world there will be no nanoscale inks on their packages, no nanoscale antimicrobials in hard surfaces at processing plants and no nanoscale clays in the plastic bottles containing organic liquids. What's next, no stain-free pants for organic farmers?

There is a place for nanotechnology in the organic foods community if it is willing to take the time to understand the benefits without falling victim to unreasonable fear tactics. Keeping synthetic nanomaterials out of the organic food supply is commendable given the principles of organic farming but there is a place for the use of new technologies that don't impact the integrity of organic foods. It's time to set aside the unfounded fears and engage in a reasonable dialogue about how nanotechnology can benefit organic foods rather than implementing a ban that puts organic producers at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

We Can Handle the Truth!

Isn't the whole truth preferable to a series of misleading half-truths? Maybe Jack Nicholson was right when he said that we "can't handle the truth." Personally, I think we can and it's time for those engaged in the discussion to step away from the tactics of fear, half-truths and outright lies so we can have a reasonable debate on nanotechnology safety.

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