The scientific and business community are still struggling to understand the global public rejection of genetically engineered (GE) foods, and with the growing discourse around the risks and disruptive impacts of nanotechnology, many are becoming increasingly worried that history is about to repeat itself.

The scientific and business community are still struggling to understand the global public rejection of genetically engineered (GE) foods, and with the growing discourse around the risks and disruptive impacts of nanotechnology, many are becoming increasingly worried that history is about to repeat itself.

There is a blossoming of reports and conferences that explore ‘From bio to nano’ and how governments can avoid ‘fighting the last war’. PR consultancies and think-tanks are doing a roaring trade in communications advice and ‘upstream engagement’ tools to minimize the risk of backlash. However, it is becoming clear that virtually all of the issues that have made GE food so controversial are also present with nanotechnology. The only real question that remains for executives and politicians worried about a nano backlash is… when?

In some ways, the outrage over GE was the accumulated and unexpressed outrage over the role of industrial agriculture and chemical companies in our lives for the past fifty years. It was a gut-level reaction that the industrial experiment had gone far enough. When pesticides were first introduced, it was done with little or no knowledge by the general public of the negative effects, and it was done when the modern environmental and consumer movements had yet to develop. However, 40 years after Rachael Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’, after 4 decades of creeping revelations about the health and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, after 4 decades of increasing public scepticism about the impacts of science, the public was not willing to idly accept the next major technological experiment with the environment and with their health.

Social movements don’t spring out of nowhere. They emerge and grow within a context – a mixture of culture, counter-culture, hopes, fears and ideas. The dramatic rejection of GE foods in the mid-late 1990’s was a trigger event in a movement that started long before. The groundwork was laid by the many groups who had been campaigning against GE since the mid 1980’s, so by the time Monsanto started planting commercial GE crops in the US in 1996, there was a clear political, social, intellectual and cultural context for the movement to flourish. The public was recently attuned to the problems of industrial food systems following BSE and other food/health scares, and was already distrustful of chemical companies. The obvious and immediate question over GE foods was, and still is, who benefits and who bears the risks? The answer was obvious. So was the response.

The official debate about GE has largely been limited to a narrow discussion of risk – involving an assessment of both the probability of some negative event happening, and the magnitude of the consequences. However, theorists such as Ulrich Beck have argued that the potential consequences of new technologies such as nuclear fusion and biotechnology render this traditional risk assessment approach inadequate because of the new and potentially massive scale of the consequences and the fact that, in the long run, the least likely event will occur. But even this critique misses what has been one of the primary sticking points for public acceptance of GE foods – the simple fact that the people who create the risks are not necessarily the ones who accept the consequences. Why should a person or a community accept any level of risk whatsoever if there is no benefit for them? On the otherhand, it is easy to see why companies are less concerned about creating and imposing risks if they are not accountable for consequences.

The mainstream debate on risk has flourished because it essentially leaves the paradigm of technological development intact. The basic assumption is that new technologies will be introduced unless a relatively narrow scientific assessment indicates that there will be negative impacts. This is in stark contrast to the model proposed by many critics of GE who argue that the burden of proof should be reversed – and that proponents of risky new technologies should be required to prove safety prior to introduction of their products. There is a rather compelling argument that both the probability of negative effects of genetic engineering, and the scale of any negative consequences are fundamentally unpredictable. Thereby justifying a precautionary and enduring ban on the release of GE organisms into the environment.

Despite the early stage of technology adoption, the debate about nano risks is already quite well developed. This is probably due to a combination of a number of factors, including a more active regulatory and public/media context around risk following 10 years of relentless public conflict over GE. The other factors are the similarities between nanoparticle toxicity and the known toxicity of other ultra-fine particles (vehicular emissions etc) and the doyen of public health scandals – asbestos. However, issues of direct environmental and health risks are only one small part of a bigger picture.

The introduction of transformative new technologies also raises more fundamental questions about values and ideas about our future. The problem is that it has somehow become taboo to contest ideas. It’s as if industrial capitalism is somehow not an idea and is therefore exempt from scrutiny, while anything else can be dismissed as ‘ideology’ – a slur that implies a lack of critical perspective. At this point, it is worth asking what kind of society is it where anyone who raises criticisms of new technology is immediately derided as an ideologue and a luddite? It’s almost as though science has achieved a quasi-religious status, where bio and nanotech might well be regarded as the new creationism.

So what are the values that underpin the coming nanotechnology revolution? To answer this question, we need to ask a few closely related questions. Who is funding the technology? In whose interests is it being developed? To what end? How are decisions being made about the technology and by whom? The short answer is that nanotechnology is primarily being developed by the world’s largest corporations and by the US military in order to introduce a range of new products and processes either for the purposes of increasing profits or extending military supremacy. While there are some genuinely interesting and possibly beneficial applications of nanoscience, this is not where the real action is and certainly isn’t what is driving research agendas.

At a fundamental level, the debate over nanotechnology will be about democracy. It will be about our future and who gets to define it. About who benefits and who bears the negative impacts. That’s what the GE campaign is about, and that’s what is at stake with nano. In the absence of a cautious and responsible approach by governments and industry to such a powerful set of technologies, the community is faced with little choice but to put the brakes on – using whatever means are possible.

John Hepburn