On June 17-18 2004, a first intergovernmental dialogue on "Responsible Research and Development of Nanotechnology" convened in Washington with representatives from 26 countries. In his introductory remarks, Mike Roco of the US government’s National Science Foundation explained that the meeting was dedicated to the examination of broad societal issues that cannot be addressed by any single country. Roco asked: "How can we prepare our world for the emergence of nanotechnology?"
Recent Content Related to International Governance
More than 650 civil society organisations (NGOs and social movements) and 800 individuals from 83 countries delivered an open letter to Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the Rome-based UN agency today condemning FAO's incompetence in addressing scientific and technical issues related to genetically- engineered crops and questioning the agency's integrity in relating to the world's smallholder farmers. Among the signatories are national and international farmers' organisations, scientists, and literally hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) some of whom have had formal consultative status with FAO for decades. The letter was hand-delivered to FAO on behalf of its signatories Wednesday morning by Antonio Onorati, who chaired the umbrella body that worked with FAO and its member governments for the World Food Summits of 1996 and 2002.
In sharp contrast to the political climate one year ago, the potential health and environmental risks of some nano-scale technologies are now being openly discussed in Europe and North America. In recent months, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have reluctantly conceded that current safety and health regulations may not be adequate to address the special exigencies of nano-scale materials.
This brochure, The Little Big Down, is based on a larger ETC Group study, The Big Down: From Genomes to Atoms.
Civil society and farmers’ organizations worldwide reacted with outrage to today’s ( (21.04.2004) 5-4 decision by the Canadian Supreme Court, affirming Monsanto’s right to prosecute farmers who are found to have GM crops growing on their land — whether they wanted them or not. Gene Giant Monsanto accused Saskatchewan farmers Percy and Louise Schmeiser of violating the company’s patent on genetically modified canola (oilseed rape). Percy and Louise did not want Monsanto’s GM canola seeds that invaded their property, and they did not try to benefit from the herbicide-tolerant trait in the GM seed (that is, they didn’t spray Roundup weedkiller), but still Monsanto prosecuted them for patent infringement and demanded a portion of their income. The Schmeisers waged a courageous, 7-year battle against Monsanto that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
A nanotech research initiative in Thailand aims to atomically modify the characteristics of local rice varieties — including the country's famous jasmine rice — and to circumvent the controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Nanobiotech takes agriculture from the battleground of GMOs to the brave new world of Atomically Modified Organisms (AMOs).
In January 2004, Bangkok Post reported on a three-year research project at Chiang Mai University's nuclear physics laboratory,(1) funded by the National Research Council of Thailand, to atomically-modify rice. The research involves drilling a nano-sized hole (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) through the wall and membrane of a rice cell in order to insert a nitrogen atom. The hole is drilled using a particle beam (a stream of fast-moving particles, not unlike a lightening bolt) and the nitrogen atom is shot through the hole to stimulate rearrangement of the rice's DNA.
J. Craig Venter, the genomics mogul and scientific wizard who recently created a unique living organism from scratch in a matter of days, is searching for pay-dirt in the biodiversity-rich Galapagos Islands. From his 95-ft. yacht, Sorcerer II, Venter is hop-scotching around the globe collecting microbial diversity from gene-rich seas and shores every 200 miles.(1) Venter's ship has already sampled in the Sargasso Sea (North Atlantic), Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador (Galapagos), Chile and is now en route to French Polynesia (Tahiti, Bora Bora, etc.).
As negotiations come to a head in Kuala Lumpur at the first meeting of the Biosafety Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) the United States along with Canada and a few Latin American states seem poised to render the 86-nation agreement irrelevant. News earlier this week that the Argentine Government has offered to collect taxes from its GM soybean farmers in lieu of royalty payments has stunned many delegations attending the meeting in the Malaysian capital.
In a paper released 28th January 2004, five University of Toronto (UT) ethicists accuse Prince Charles of "fear-mongering" and ETC Group of condemning poor nations to exports of "bananas and t-shirts." The authors speak enthusiastically about the potential of nanotechnology to improve conditions in the developing world and they express dismay that, in their view, "commentators" are now focusing primarily on risks instead of benefits. ETC Group responds.
Since 1994, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been promising "benefit sharing" to Indigenous Peoples in return for access to biodiversity (i.e., bioprospecting). During these ten years, Indigenous Peoples and farming communities have worked long and hard to realize this goal.
Terminator – or genetic seed sterilization – has been on the agenda of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for five years. If the Gene Giants and governments get their way, the CBD will be conducting studies on Terminator for years to come – long after suicide seeds are commercialized and show up in farmers’ fields.
At the ninth meeting of the CBD’s scientific advisory body (SBSTTA 9) held November 10-14 in Montreal, four governments – Canada, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil – were allowed to highjack debate and stall action on Terminator by insisting that the CBD postpone consideration of an expert technical report on the impacts of genetic seed sterilization, arguing that the report lacks scientific rigor. While the report will be forwarded to next February’s Conference of the Parties (COP7) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it will go with a recommendation that COP7 forego action and re-direct the report to the next meeting of the scientific body (SBSTTA10) – in late 2004 or 2005 – with the aim of providing advice to COP8 in 2006!
ETC Group today (October 2003) released a 6-page Communiqué on the use of nanotechnology-based products in the environment - products that are coming to market in the absence of both government oversight and public discussion. A recent large-scale application of a product touted to control soil erosion using nanotechnology highlights regulatory inadequacies and lack of clarity in the nanotech industry.
Nanotechnology - whose best-known commercial successes have thus far been stain-resistant fabrics, stronger and lighter tennis rackets, and transparent sunscreens - has spawned new environmental products to prevent erosion or to clean up contaminated sites. While the companies claim these products will be beneficial to the ecosystem, in the absence of government regulatory oversight, the unknown short- and long-term implications raise concerns for health and for the environment.
On October 9, 2003, peasant farmers and indigenous communities along with civil society organizations in Mexico publicly released the results of their own testing of farmers' maize varieties and found GM contamination in at least nine states - far more serious and widespread than previously assumed.
Unique nanotechnology products and processes are entering large-scale use in the environment without regulatory oversight. Materials and processes approved at conventional scales (macro or micro) do not require re-examination when used at the nanoscale even though the impact on the ecosystem – including on biodiversity – could be radically different. A recent event on First Nations’ land in New Mexico using what appears to be a nanotech self-assembly process should be a warning to government and industry.
New Developments: While claiming not to have reversed their position against commercialization of Terminator seeds, some Gene Giants are continuing to seek new patents on genetic seed sterilization and others are boldly advocating in favor of GURTs (genetic use restriction technology) in intergovernmental negotiations. Stung by negative publicity related to the escape of DNA from genetically modified (GM) plants, industry continues to "greenwash" Terminator by promoting it as a biosafety tool for containing unwanted geneflow from GM plants. Biotech company Maxygen has unveiled a new technology designed to banish foreign DNA from GM plants as a way to silence critics of genetic engineering. ETC Group calls it the "Exorcist" technology.
At its annual meeting on Thursday, April 24th 2003, Monsanto's top brass will greet shareholders with a dismal financial report, (a 15% drop in annual sales - $4.7 billion in 2002, down from $5.5 billion in 2001) and a shareholder resolution that urges the company to re-think the safety of genetically engineered seeds - now the company's flagship product. But there's potentially more troubling news - a little known position paper that could rattle shareholders, irk investors and erode public confidence still further in the biotech behemoth: Despite its 1999 pledge not to commercialize Terminator technology, Monsanto has recently adopted a positive stance on genetic seed sterilization, a technology that has been condemned by civil society and some governments as an immoral application of genetic engineering.
After two days of intense diplomatic wrangling in Geneva, April 10-11 2003, US patent officials succeeded in turning the expert advice of an intergovernmental secretariat critical of Terminator technology into little more than a promotional paper for plant breeders' rights.
UPOV has succumbed to the strong-arm tactics of the US government and the multinational seed industry, both of whom have vested financial interests in Terminator technology. If member governments of UPOV had any doubts about who determines policy within the Union, they need only examine the recent case of Terminator.
For the first time in its more than 30-year history, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) – a network of public and private donors that supports sixteen agricultural research centres around the world – held its annual meeting outside the confines of the World Bank in Washington, DC. The CGIAR is the largest public sector agricultural research effort and is mandated to serve the developing world’s poor.
Indigenous peoples' and farmers' organizations from the Andes and the Amazon gathered at the offices of the Ecological Forum in Lima, Peru on 28 June 2002 to formally denounce US patents on maca, the high-altitude Andean plant (of the Cruciferae [mustard] family) that has been grown for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Puna highlands of Peru, both as a staple food crop and for medicinal purposes. Today, maca-based products are commonly promoted as natural enhancers of sexual function and fertility, and demand for maca is growing in the US, Europe and Japan.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the global area devoted to transgenic or genetically modified (GM) crops has increased more than 30-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 52.6 million hectares in 2001. The statistics show an extraordinarily rapid market introduction. More astonishing is the concentration in ownership and control of GM crop technology. At this point in time, GM crop technology is dominated almost exclusively by a single company, in limited geographical areas.