The use of man-made nanoparticles has been banned in British products that want a sometimes-valuable “organic” label from the Soil Association. The group laid out the first organic standard in the world back in 1967 and continues to certify organic products in Great Britain.Cosmetics from Johnson & Johnson and L’Oreal could be impacted, but in our snooping around, we didn’t find any companies that currently have an organic label that would be forced to remove it (neither could the Financial Times). One widely used product containing nanoparticles is sunscreen containing titanium dioxide, which normally is white, but at the nanoscale, becomes transparent, allowing for “clear” sunscreen.
Gundaleh Azziz, the group’s policy manager explained to WiSci why they’ve added the ban to their organic standards:
It could be in the future, possibly, certain nanotech products are proven to be wonderful. But, it doesn’t seem suitable for organic. It’s also about providing a refuge for the public. At the moment, you don’t know which products they are in.
Viewed in a precautionary framework, the Soil Association’s move makes sense. Their fundamental position is that if we don’t know the risks, the products shouldn’t be available to the public. Or at least consumers should have the option to knowingly choose products that do not contain nanoparticles.
And it is true that the science and toxicology of materials at smaller-than-standard scales is still being worked out. As Andrew Maynard, science adviser to the Pew Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies put it, “What you have is a lot of confusion and speculation because the science is not exactly clear about what is safe.”
There’s a lot of nanoparticle risk information out there, but it’s all over the map and truly rigorous evaluations of the health and safety impacts of different nanoparticles haven’t been conducted.
Stephan Sterne of the National Institutes for Health lead authored a paper in the journal Toxicological Sciences that was published earlier this year. In its abstract, he wrote:
any conclusions should clearly be tempered by the fact that nanomaterial safety data are limited. Until such time as the exposures, hazards, and environmental life cycle of nanomaterials have been more clearly defined, cautious development and implementation of nanotechnology is the most prudent course.
So I do give the Soil Association credit for drawing attention to the need for studies in nanotoxicity. What I question is whether or not the political moves they are making are actually productive. The Soil Association, and groups associated with it like the ETC Group, are extending out from this specific labeling maneuver to frame the debate around nanotechnology as similar to the genetic modification debate, even though the science, benefits, and risks of these technologies are vastly different.
Number one, genetically engineering living organisms, for good or ill, is fundamentally different from the creation of nanoparticles: most obviously, life can reproduce. Second, genetic engineering is a set of techniques for the creation of genetically modified organisms, while nanotechnology is a far broader science.
“Talking about nanotechnology is the same as talking about chemistry,” said Maynard. “There are many different nanoparticles out there.”
It seems that the Soil Association’s reasoning would lead one to the unwanted position of banning chemistry itself, not just pesticides, because poisons can be created.
And, fundamentally, I’m not sure why we’d want to replicate the GMO debate. It is polarized and largely unproductive. Agronomists and biotechnologists face off against environmentalists and natural food advocates but very little progress is made. Anti-GMO people are unhappy because there are tons of GMO corn and soy grown. GMO advocates are unhappy because they have a hard time introducing new GM crops, and many say their science is limited. Consumers, who both groups claim they want to help, are stuck without labels on GM foods OR new GM fruits and vegetables.