Too small to be beautiful? Organic Pioneer says No to Nano

Now that you can drive your ‘nano’ car, listening to your ipod ‘nano’ while wearing ‘nano’ sunscreen and ‘nano’ clothing, the UK’s largest organic certifier has just introduced the perfect nano-antidote - a ‘nano-free’ standard for consumer products. The Soil Association – one of the world's pioneers of organic agriculture announced today that it is has banned human-made nanomaterials from the organic cosmetics, foods and textiles that it certifies. It is the first in the world to do so and there's a pretty good chance that where the Soil Association leads - the rest of the world's 40 billion dollar market in organic production is likely to follow.

For 'the soils' as they are affectionately known in the UK, drawing a line against nano is a sensible and timely move. Nanotechnology used to be just a science fiction staple for the star trek types but today its a multi-billion dollar industry busily inserting tiny nanoparticles (that is particles billionths of a metre in size) into everyday items such as cosmetics, fabrics, pesticides, even foods. According to the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center, there are over 500 manufacturer-identified consumer products on the market that contain nanomaterials. A 2007 survey by the European Food Safety Authority, which has just begun wrestling with the question of regulating nanotech, estimates there are at least 70 nanotech food-related applications already on the market and most major food and beverage corporations are investing in nanotech R&D. The use of nanotech in cosmetics and clothing is even more widespread. Meanwhile there is a paucity of studies on the health, safety and environmental impacts of nano-scale materials, no nano-specific regulations and real worries about the unusual toxicity of small particles.

“There should be no place for nanoparticles in health and beauty products or food." explains the Soil Associations Gundula Azeez, who also serves on an official British standards body for Nanotechnology "We are deeply concerned at the government’s failure to follow scientific advice and regulate products. There should be an immediate freeze on the commercial release of nanomaterials until there is a sound body of scientific research into all the health impacts. As we saw with GM, the government is ignoring the initial indications of risk and giving the benefit of the doubt to commercial interest rather than the protection of human health."

Lest anyone should think this is a nano-storm-in-a-teacup its worth noting that the Soil Association has a good pedigree in getting there before consumer concern. At a time when 'the Soils' were led by legendary economist EF Schumacher (the author of 'Small is Beautiful') it co-founded of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) which now oversees global organic rules. In 1967 they published the world’s first organic standard explicitly banning pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals from organic farming. In 1983 they banned animal protein from animal feed 3 years before the first case of BSE (mad cow disease) was discovered in Britain. In 1994 they banned GM crops from food and farming. In the wake of the Soil Association’s ‘no-nano’ decision other organic agriculture groups in North America and Europe are now examining whether to also ban nanomaterials from their organic standards, too.

The Soil Association ban comes in the same month that the UK’s largest consumer association, Which?, will launch its campaign to protect the public from risky nanomaterials in consumer products, following the lead of the US Consumer’s Union which has called for mandatory labeling, regulatory oversight and increased funding for risk-related research. It also follows growing annoyance in civil society that repeated warnings over nanotech safety risks are being ignored by nano-boosting governments. In mid-2007 over 40 civil society groups endorsed a statement of principles calling for precautionary action, manufacturer liability and new nano-specific regulations for nano-products. To date no government has enacted legislation to assess the safety or societal impacts of nanomaterials.

Indeed as with genetically modified foods when they first hit the market, manufacturers are not even required to disclose the presence of nano-size materials so it’s virtually impossible to make fully informed choices. In its newly published standard the Soil Association bans the use of human-made nanomaterials whose basic particle size is less than 125nm and whose mean particle size is less than 200nm. Thats incredibly tiny - smaller than the smallest known microbes and certainly far too small for any shopper to happen to notice. Organic therefore may become a 'safe haven' for those who'd rather not gamble on this risky technology in their fruit juices and face creams - just as it did with GMO's. The Soil Association certification mark already found on over 80% of organic products is now effectively the world’s first nano-free symbol but it won't be the last.