Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

Nanotechnology and synthetic biology

Environmental and socio-economic risks of two emerging new technologies

Organiser: Maureen E. Butter, Platform Health and Environment, the Netherlands and ANPED, the Northern Alliance for Sustainability,

Maureen Butter, Platform Health and Environment, Netherlands and coordinator Health Work Group of ANPED, the Northern Alliance for Sustainability
Jim Thomas, ETC Group, Canada
Jurek Vengels and Katja Vaupel, Bund, Germany

illustration: etc-group

Nanotechnology and synthetic biology are major new technologies, both with the capacity of generating devastating ecological and social effects. Among others nanotechnology yields new materials, ‘machines’ on very small scale, with possibly new and unexpected properties. Synthetic biology beats all previous achievements of GMO’s and will probably give rise to new species in varieties and numbers unheard of. Synthetic biology is not about modifying existing organisms, but about designing new organisms. It is generally agreed that these technologies comprise the third industrial revolution. These developments are well underway, pushed by huge amounts of tax-payers’ funding. In the EU DG Research allotted M€ 1300 and M€3400 in FP6 and FP7 respectively. So far, NGOs have only minimally participated in the decision-making processes, i.e. to promote R&D, to assess risks, to formulate a code of conduct and to inform and involve the general public. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new technologies are portrayed as very promising and very beneficial in all important aspects. Nanomaterials are already widely applied in all kinds of consumer products, ranging from new chemicals and materials, to medicines, cosmetics, foods and electronics. Synthetic biology has not yet reached this stage, but will do so in a couple of years.

From the scientific world itself there is a call for caution. It is agreed that new technologies come with new risks and so far concerns about privacy, environmental health and safety and military and terrorist abuse have been identified. ETC-Group adds concerns about social disruption and biodiversity. These are major problems and the lack of NGO-participation in EU decision-making is a major concern in itself.

The objective of the workshop is to raise awareness of issues arising from these new technologies and to build a network of interested NGOs. Outcome: recommendations, priorities and a list of interested NGOs. Proceedings of the workshop

Two emerging fields of technology to discuss in this workshop are nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Both fields promise fabulous new wealth and major steps forward in the advancement of humanity, so far without any real results backing up their claims. As usual, much more money flows into further development than into risk assessment. What’s worrying is that so far NGOs haven’t bothered too much giving any input or feedback to these development. Are we going to leave this to industry, economists and scientists? We’d better not, since very much is at stake, from health, biodiversity to social equity and human rights issues.

Synthetic biology
Synthetic biology is a major step away from classical biotechnology and promises a revolution in the production of new organisms. Where classical biotechnology may be described as modifying existing organisms in a more or less artisanal way, synthetic biology is more like designing new organisms from scratch, or from standardized ‘building blocks’. Like in nanotechnology, enormous amounts of tax payers money find their way to research institutes to further develop this fields. There is every reason to believe that the risks will be of a totally different order than the ones we already know from GMOs. You will find more about synthetic biology and issues involved on

Nanotechnology, hailed as the new industrial revolution, refers to design, production and use of devices on an incredibly small scale. Advances in physics, biochemistry and ICT have enabled manipulation of matter in increasingly smaller scale, that of atoms and molecules. A suitable definition of nanomaterials is a size of 100-300 nm in at least one dimension. A nanometer is a billionth part of a meter. Just for reference, a single strand of DNA measures 2.5 nm across, a red blood cell 7000 nm. For the organism it doesn’t matter whether a nanoparticle was artificially designed (bucky balls, nanotubes, nanochips), produced as a bulk material (carbon black, titanium dioxide) or originated accidentally from combustion processes (diesel exhaust and other particulate matter). What matters is whether it is relatively insoluble or capable of being metabolized by the body. It appears that materials considered harmless or chemically inert might be quite toxic when in nano size. Toxicity depends on chemical composition, surface characteristics, size, and form and at present there is no simple method to predict toxicity from particle characteristics. For all we know, they should be treated like separate chemicals. Unfortunately they are not, there is no regulation at all pertaining to chemicals in nano form. Which meant that there is no impediment at all to produce and market products containing nanomaterials.
Many groups already recommend to:
• A strong precautionary approach to managing nanotechnology
• The assessment of nanomaterials as new chemicals
• Mandatory safety testing of nanomaterials prior to their inclusion in commercial products
• Requirements for product labels to indicate the presence of manufactured nano materials/particles
• The consideration of nanotechnology’s broader societal implications alongside questions of basic safety
• Public participation in decision-making regarding nanotechnology’s introduction and in determining priorities for public spending on nanotechnology research and development.

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Background Papers and further reading

New technologies, why bother?, Nanotechnology and synthetic biology
Presentation, Maureen E. Butter, Platform Health and Environment, the Netherlands and ANPED, the Northern Alliance for Sustainability

Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials
The undersigned, a broad coalition of civil society, public interest, environmental and labor organizations concerned about various aspects of nanotechnology’s human health, environmental, social, ethical, and other impacts, submit the following Declaration, Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials.

BUND Position “For the Responsible Management of Nanotechnology”
Resolution by the National Executive Committee on April 12, 2007, Helmut Horn, Wilfried Kühling
Today many technical fields of nanotechnology apply in a targeted manner new substances that
are smaller than 100 nanometres (nm) in size. The special and previously unknown properties
that these substances and materials possess at these scales can be used for many industrial
applications and products. For this reason, nanotechnology is already being used today in,
among others, cosmetics, medicines, food and electronic products.

Nanotechnology and health risks
The Health and Environment Alliance, april 2008,
What is “nanotechnology” and how is it used?



nanotechnology and synthetic biologyNanotechnologie et biologie synthétiqueNanotechnologie und synthetische BiologieNanotecnología y biología sintética

Local Organising Committee