‘Techno disasters’ Matter, think tank warns nanotech supporters

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology, Social responsibility

‘Techno disasters’ Matter, think tank warns nanotech supporters
Industry must learn crucial communication lessons from past “techno disasters” such as GM and asbestos to ensure greater consumer acceptance of new technologies such as nanotechnology, according to scientific think tank Matter.

Nanotechnology involves the engineering of functional systems from a molecular and atomic scale, with at least one characteristic dimension measured in nanometres (where one nanometre is 50,000th of a hair width).

Food application areas include lowering sugar, salt and fat levels with no taste loss, increasing nutrient or vitamin content or developing satiety-inducing foods.

In a new report, Matter noted that responsible development of new technologies with biotechnology and genomics applications was the new corporate social responsibility (CSR) focus for firms active in the food, energy, cosmetics, medicine and chemical sectors.

Director Hilary Sutcliffe, said: “Companies … are taking steps to learn the lessons of the past and consider the issues around the responsible development and use of these new technologies, particularly nanotechnologies.”

Positive social benefits

Problems with the introduction of past technologies including GM, nuclear power and food irradiation suggest that a “more accountable, responsible and transparent approach” ​was needed, Matter said.

Namely, in the development of products that have a “positive social benefit and are safe for humans, animals and the environment",​ it added.

Chris Woodcock, managing partner at communications consultancy College Hill said: “The simple rule is always to state the social benefit or aim first. For instance, population growth is forcing us to find new, sustainable and safe food sources.”

She added that the public needed to be treated as grown-ups, with “straight-talking and clear rationales…now much more acceptable”.

Reviewing 23 publications on various technologies such as nanotechnology, Matter concluded that the public was “excited but sceptical”​ about their potential.

The think tank said openness about the use of nano was a “no brainer”.​ There are at least 350 nano-based products available in Europe, some of which are listed in the US-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Nano Consumer Products Inventory,​ Matter noted.

But it claimed that the relevant company websites contained virtually no information about use of the technology.

‘Trivial’ application distrust

Beyond the “standard sales message”,​ firms should educate consumer to understand the benefits, social and environmental impact of such technology, Matter said, while government incentives to prompt disclosure, including regulation, were also needed.

“Where a technology is perceived as new and scary, much more detail is required on why and how this approach is necessary, its use and the research that goes into proving its efficacy, safety and superiority over existing solutions,”​ Matter said.

Choice was also crucial, Matter added, given increasing perceptions that technology is being forced on consumers or ‘smuggled into’ products, which could affect product acceptance and the technology as a whole.

Matter’s conclusions reflect those of a Soil Association report published in April. This reported Food Standards Agency (FSA) consumer survey views on nanotechnology, conducted between last November and February.

Participants valued benefits nanotechnology could offer people with, say, dietary concerns, or when it was used in packaging, the report authors found.

However, consumers were wary of “unnecessary or trival applications”​, thought to be unduly risky on social and environmental grounds. These included products inducing people to feel fuller, or the creation of foods with new textures and flavours.

Related topics: Ambient foods, Chilled foods, Dairy, Drinks

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Re industry standards and GM!

Posted by Hilary Sutcliffe,

Thanks very much 'mindful observer'. There are a couple of principle-based codes. One we developed in the collaborative multi-stakeholder way that you suggest was called the Responsible Nano Code (http://nanoandme.org/social-and-ethical/corporate-responsibility/responsible-nano-code/) sorry can't seem to hyperlink in comments.

However, your suggestions do build on that in some areas and I would be really interested to talk to you about that, as we are considering adapting these principles for other 'ologies'. Do email me if you can on hilary@matterforall.org

Regarding GM disasters. Paul Trembath, yes there is a much richer picture behind my use of the "disaster" word, which includes a whole 'ology' not being available for appropriate use, as well as the issues Mindful Observer mentions.

That's for another day, but is behind the thinking of the development of the Nano Code and our work. How do we access the use of new technologies appropriately and safely? Or our strapline 'making new technologies work for us all', i.e. not just one stakeholder whether that be businesses or activists.

Thanks very much for both your comments. BTW the report itself is available on our website www.matterforall.org

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Credibility and transparency: How about some industry-wide standards?

Posted by Mindful Observer,

Interesting article. Especially as it acknowledges the fundamental challenges of safety and significance of the applications, rather than taking this on as strictly a PR matter.

What's really needed is a set of industry-standard 'best practices' designed to insure the integrity and transparency of the applied science prior to commercialization. The guiding principle must be that public and environmental safety needs take real precidence over corporate interests.

These standards must emerge through a dialogue between the corporate and scientific and academic communities, but here are some thoughts to kick off the discussion:
1. Research should be designed in part to address the safety and environmental concerns of non-interested parties.
2. Research design and protocols must satisfy academic standards of ethical and scientific credibility, so as to be definitive. For example, the number of subjects in test groups must be large enough to assure meaning statistical analysis, rather than relying on small numbers of test cases to assure a finding of "no differences noted between test and normal populations.
3. Research must be conducted by credible parties who do not have a conflict of interest based on the outcome of the research/testing.
4. All findings and raw data must be made available to the scientific and regulatory community (i.e., corporations cannot cherry pick the data to be submitted and hide findings deemed contrary to their commercial interests).
5. Given that new technologies may persent long-term risks that are not evident initially, the benefits of advanced technology solutions need to be greater than or different from those of other solutions developed through conventional means, as a requirement for commercialization.

This list should be sufficient to promote discussion.

As for the comment by the GM supporter, the "disaster" is still unfolding, but the components are there: lack of credibility and transparency in development and testing, the reliance on politics rather than science to promote commercialization, the failure of many of these products to out-perform those developed by conventional and far safer means (e.g., drought-resistant GM crops that aren't drought resistant in real-world applications).

Also the extraordinary collateral damage to competing methodologies, which serves proprietary commercial interests at the expense of the public welfare. For instance, GM traits contaminating non-GM plants, permitting Monsanto to sue non-adopting farmer victoms for patent enfringement, the emergence of glyphosphate-resistant weeds (requiring treatment with multi-herbicide cocktails at just the time when glyphosphate's core patents are expiring, permitting generic competition to glyphosphate-only treatments).

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Posted by Paul Trembath,

What was that GM disaster again? Or does public prejudice and opposition, partly justified by industry attitudes, count as a "disaster"?

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