I recently attended an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) seminar on the risk assessment and risk management of nanomaterials. This was an eye-opening experience that graphically illustrated the extent of corporate influence over nanotechnology regulation globally.

Representatives of the chemical companies DuPont and Evonik; the Nanotechnology Industries Association; and the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC) sat alongside representatives of countries such as Australia, the US and Canada and were given equal speaking time.

BIAC gave a presentation on their work with the Canadian and United States Governments to harmonise nanotechnology regulation between the two countries. Repeated reference to the involvement of ‘stakeholders’ prompted me to ask if any NGOs were involved in the process. Only in the earlier stages apparently − ‘stakeholders’ basically meant industry.

A representative of the Nanotechnology Industries Association told us about the European NANoREG project they are leading in collaboration with regulators, industry and scientists. This is intended to ‘develop … new testing strategies adapted to innovation requirements’ and to ‘establish a close collaboration among authorities, industry and science leading to efficient and practically applicable risk management approaches’. In other words industry will be helping write the rules.

Interestingly, when I raised concerns about this profound intertwining of government and industry with one of the other NGO representatives they seemed almost dismissive of my concerns. I got the impression that most of the parties concerned thought that this was just the ‘way things were’. As under-resourced regulators struggle with the regulatory challenges posed by nanotechnology − the offer of industry assistance is probably very appealing. And from the rhetoric at the meeting one could be forgiven for thinking that their objectives are very similar − to ensure that their products are safe.

Right? Wrong. Ultimately corporations have one primary driver and that’s increasing their bottom line. This means externalising the environmental and human health costs associated with their products in any way possible, minimising regulation and fighting to keep products on the market, even when it’s revealed that they are unsafe. So no – their objectives shouldn’t be the same as regulators – that’s if regulators are doing their jobs properly.

Unfortunately the impact that this level of entanglement between industry and government has had is evident in nanotechnology regulation (or lack of it) the world over. In 2010, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) recommended that substances be categorised as nanomaterials if more than 0.15% of the particles were less than 100 nanometers in diameter. One year later, following industry consultation, the European Commission produced a revised definition requiring at least 50% of the number of particles to be between 1−100nm before the substance was categorised as a nanomaterial − over 300 times what SCENIHR recommended. Under this definition substances can contain 49.9% nanoparticles and companies can still claim their product to be non-nano!

In March this year, industry’s invisible hand became visible once again when the European Commission proposed that Parliament grant a blanket exemption from food-labelling requirements for nano-additives already on the market. Fortunately, the European Parliament rejected the proposal. Regrettably, this kind of industry influence is not confined to Europe. In Australia, an independent, government commissioned review of food labelling laws in 2012 recommended that food products containing materials from new technologies, such as nanotechnology, be labelled for at least 30 years as an act of precaution. The proposal was rejected by the state and federal governments without comment.

So why does this happen? Some of the measures are well known, such as campaign financing and intense and frequent lobbying pressure. However, there are much deeper systemic problems that influence the way governments regulate new technologies. These include the institutionalised belief that social progress is the same thing as continuous technological advancement and that technology will somehow make it possible to achieve limitless growth. These deeply held beliefs have led to government viewing critical regulation to protect human health and the environment as ‘red tape’ and ‘barriers to innovation’.

Although banning corporate political donations would be a step in the right direction, unfortunately it would do little to affect the enormous influence industry wields over government. In order to resist dangerous, unsustainable and unjust technologies and ensure that useful technologies are used equitably we need to challenge both assumptions about growth, technology and progress and the more overt mechanisms of corporate influence.

We need to expose the extent to which technological innovation is driven by commercial and military interests and the role of government in furthering these interests through the funding and promotion of certain technologies. There are no easy solutions but it is vitally important for the future of the planet that we begin to grapple with these issues.

Louise Sales is the coordinator of Friends of the Earth‘s Emerging Tech Project