So, I come back from a wedding spent on a farm in West Virginia where goats, ponies, turkeys, pheasant and rabbits frolicked and huge kitchen gardens produced enough vegetables and fruits for several families, where wild berries grew juicy and sweet in the shade of towering maples and oaks, to see an email that Zak sent me this morning, pointing me to this story from Alternet:
“The Evolution of Frankenfoods?”.

The culture shock is a bit much for me, but I decided that this was an important enough story to share with my readers.

The headline is a bit misleading: one would assume that the subject of the story was the further exploits of the genetically-modified food industry, which has thus far managed to taint a large number of maize varieties. This happened all because some fancy scientist never bothered to realize that corn is pollinated by the wind, and so promised that thier genetically modified varieties would never come into contact with non-modified varieties because they would be planted far from each other.

Any competent farmer could and would have told them not to underestimate the power of the wind to move corn pollen. (That said, I want to point out that I am not completely against the idea of genetically modified food crops in theory–all food plants and animals have been genetically modified by human beings since the dawn of history, all to the benefit of humankind. What I am against, however, is the use of genetic manipulation of crop plants and animals in order to provide a business monopoly that effectively could land the control of our food supply squarely in the hands of corporate interests. To me, this is the use of a technology that has great potential to benefit all of humanity to only line the pockets of those who are already quite rich by taking advantage of farmers and consumers.)

At any rate–this article, while it does touch on the issue of genetically modified crops, is primarily about the nascent development of nanotechnology. According to the article, very few people know what nanotech actually is, so here is a quick definition, gleaned from the article:

“Definitional confusion is endemic to new technologies, and nanotech is plagued by more than its share of misunderstanding. On the one hand, “nano” refers to any process that takes place at the nano-scale, which is 1-100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter or one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. A great deal of chemistry takes place at this level. Even ordinary combustion produces nanoparticles, whether from diesel engines or just plain campfires.

Strictly speaking, though, nanotechnology refers to scientific manipulations at the nano-scale. In the last twenty years, scientists have learned how to manufacture so many different synthetic nano-materials that they now have what amounts to a Lilliputian Lego set. These materials go by often fanciful names such as buckyballs (60 carbon atoms shaped like a mini-soccer ball), dendrimers (molecules that branch like trees), and quantum dots (semiconductor nano-crystals). The variety of these new materials is so wide that it can be difficult to generalize about their properties, just as it would be foolish to generalize about apples and oranges simply because they are both fruit.”

Essentially, in layman’s terms, nanotechnology is the production of and use of machinery on the molecular level in order to manipulate processes and produce chemical and physical change in existing materials that cannot happen in any other fashion. The applications of nanotechnology are seemingly limitless, and have been the stuff of science fiction literature, movies and television ever since the late 1950’s.

However, it is the applications in relation to food that this article primarily focuses upon, which is why I am featuring it in today’s first blog entry.

Here is another excerpt which comes to the crux of why those of us who are concerned with the human food supply should take it upon ourselves to learn about nanotechnology and keep a sharp eye on this, as yet, unregulated industry:

“The last two years have witnessed a flurry of studies suggesting that nanotechnology is not as benign as first thought. This research has shown that carbon nanotubes have caused lung damage in mice, and can, in large quantities, penetrate human skin to cause irritation. Buckyballs have caused brain damage in fish, might knock out smaller links in the aquatic food chain, and turn out to unexpectedly dissolve in water(which might inhibit the growth of important soil bacteria). Derimbers, used in drug delivery ssystems can punch tiny holes in and ultimately destroy cell membranes.

At the other end of the chain, the “end of life” question, no one really knows what happens to nanoparticles. “What happens to all that nano-sized titanium oxide in skin care products when you wash it off?” Rejeski wonders. No one knows if nanoparticles accumulate in human tissue or ecosystems and whether nano-pesticides might pose some future DDT-like problem.”

In essence, what we have is an untested, unregulated series of processes, which have unlimited applications in industry, agriculture, and medicine, which most of humanity knows nothing about. However, please take note of which food corporations are funding research into nanotechnological applications in food production: Kraft, Syngenta and Monsanto–all leaders in food processing, the gentic modification of crops or the manufacture of pesticides and herbicides.

Nanotechnology stands poised to make the leap from science fiction to reality within the next couple of decades, and has the potential to completely change the ways in which humans eat, both for good and ill, as well as how we relate to all aspects of life. It is being marketed to investors as a chance to maximize profit, and the governments of the world are lagging behind in regulating its growth and application, even though serious questions about its safety to humanity and the biosphere remain unanswered.

For further information, check out The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology website and the blog, Responsible Technology.

Also, look at Harold Lovy’s excellent, but no longer active, blog, NanoBot–he has some great commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the nanotechnology question.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Hey Barbara,

    I was thinking the same thing about the big name food corporations while reading the article. It seems that anything that can be benefit agriculture in a healthful way can also be exploited.

    While these major corporations may not be bent on turning everyone into zombies or the like, they still haven’t proven themselves in the eyes of the health-concious consumer or anyone who likes to know what they’re eating. I’m really not sure what to think about it. All we can really do is wait.


    Comment by allen wong — July 18, 2005 #

  2. Yes, Allen–wait and pay attention.

    The large food and petrochemical corporations, like Kraft or Monsanto are not evil in that they are setting out to take over the world by turning people into sugar-swilling zombies. They are evil in that their bottom line is the most important thing to them, and they are not exactly ethical about achieving it. Monsanto controls a large amount of the agricultural seeds which are sold all over the world, which means they can charge however much they want to for them. If a farmer does what a farmer always used to do and save some seed from their crop for next year, Monsanto can sue them. And Kraft–that food-additive inventing megagiant which I believe is owned by Phillip Morris, a company which has proven how much they care about consumers by thier actions in the class action lawsuits over additives in cigarettes–well, they put so much sugar and fat in most of their products that it is no wonder people are getting fat in this country, if they eat that crap.

    I am just mistrusting of corporations and businesses who operate new technologies without adequate testing for safety which have no regulations or governmental agencies providing oversight. It is just a wee bit too creepy for my taste.

    Mind you, it will become creepier once the nanotechnologists figure out the nanotech holy grail–how to make nanites self-reproducing. Once that happens–who knows what could happen?

    Maybe I just read a little too much science fiction, but humanity is sometimes too apt to trust new technologies without thought.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 19, 2005 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.