Pat Mooney on Nanotechnology and the Enclosure of the Chemical Elements

This is the rough transcript, still including some typos, of a presentation at the Crottorf Consultations on the Commons, transcribed by Silke Helfrich.

Pat Mooney (ETC Group):

“I first came across on biotechnologies in the 70th. In that time we saw, that 3 things were coming together. We saw the genetic erosion of crop species and animal species. We estimate, that a 75 % of the genetic diversity of food crops has disappeared already, even more of that in terms of live stock species. That was happening because of the green revolution and industrial agriculture and so on.

Then, there was also a consolidation in the seed industry, that was merging with the pesticide industry. We were trying to understand, why that was taking place. It was strange for us.

And the third thing, that was happening was, that there was a move towards patents over plant varieties. At this time, it wasn’t called a patent but „plant variety protection“.

And the 3 seemed to come together to be one combination: The proper concentration was leading to control of plant breeding, plant breeding was being focussed on the ability to get intelectual property protection over the plant variety, which was meant to have distinct, stable and uniform varieties and to get the patent. This led to genetic erosion in the field, because the corporate varieties were squeezing out the farmers varieties and even other commercial varieties, that didn’t have to be distinct, uniform and stable to get a „variety protection“.

So we found: „Oh, there is a thing they are all talking about, called biotechnology and genetic engineering.

So, what was then and what is now?

We did a calculation in 1977 of the number of companies involved in plant breeding and seed selling around the world. There were more then 7000 seed companies and no one had one percent or even half of the global seed market. There was no such thing as a global seed market at all.

We also looked at number of pesticide companies dominant in that time, actually producing new pesticides; there were 65 of those.

And what was obvious, if you look at the input industry of agriculture of that time, is, that there was a tremendous diversity of companies, small business, relatively small pesticide companies and so on.

Today there are no longer 7000 companies, there are 10 companies that control almost 70 % of the global market place, but even that is not describing the reality: There are 3 companies, that control virtually 50 % of the global seed market. If you look at the pesticide industry, same story … no 10 pesticide companies control 49% of the global market. And again, it’s a handfull of 3 or 4 companies, it’s very hard to come to 10 for pesticides any longer. And if you look at who are the important seed companies and who are the important pesticide companies, they are the same – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. If you look at animal genetics, again, you will find that Monsanto dominates in pigs. It’s not so strong in other areas, but in chicken industry as well the market is controlled.

So, the trend is: Concentration is taking place. How did/do they get there?

In the 70th we were told, we need biotechnology because we need to feed the hungry, the population is growing… you know, the usual stories. And from the industry the argument was: in order to be able to introduce these extraordinary expensive (by the way highly risky) technologies, what we need to have is:

* first of all some legal protection of intelectual property on plant varieties and seed varieties.

* Secondly we need some protection in the sense of regulatory forgiveness for high concentration in the area of inputs. In the 60 th, it was not obvious, that a insecticide company could merge with a gras pesticide company. That would have seemed to be to much concentration in pesticides. Now, the pesticide industry covers all of that, and the seeds as well. So we need to have the government to allow this kind of forgiveness. For doing that, we need to scale out competition. Small family businesses are irrelevant. But more importantly we need to get rid of the public sector, when you have the Plant Breed Institute in Cambridge for example – it’s a major competitor for Shell-Oil-Industry, at that time. You had to stop that. All public sector activity was to dangerous.

* And thirdly, you had to have this myth, you had to buy into the idea, that this new technologies was really the solution.

So, they succeeded brilliantly. They turned a highly diversified, decentralized, an hard to profit form industry – the agricultural input industry – into a profit source for a hand full of companies. And they won, in terms of global seed sales, for instance. They control the food sector. They got rid of small seed companies, they got rid of competition, they got rid of government control. They got that. They did it with a terrible technology, a stupid, clumsy technology (the idea of moving genes from one species to another is such a hidden proposition) which was n’ t likely to work. Not even the more optimistic ones, didn’t really had much confidence in getting it work. If you look at what they were saying to each other in the industry at that time. But the myth was so big, and now we have a Marketplace for Biotech by 76 million Dollars…. Right now there is a loss of profits, but that was not the point, the point was, to get rid of all the competition.

What you see right now is in fact major companies, who are in Biotech, actually going back into conventional plant breeding. And as far as patents are concerned (they got the patents)… They now say: it’s to hard to get that, it’s to risky. The truth is: They don’t need it any more. They have bought it up already. They trade with each other, they trade patent with each other, and they have the control.

So, you don’t have to have good science to make good profits. Even with a lousy or shallow technology, at the end of the day, once you managed to sell a big lie to everybody in order to get rid of competition and you got the control… it’s not interesting any more. They got that.

Then years ago, we have been looking and evaluating: What else is going on? Is it just about biotech or is there something else? So we were starting to look at other technologies, quickly stumbling on to on Nanotechnology.

There is a major debate going on in Science circles of United States, but also in Europe on the idea of technological convergence.

We call it BANG (Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes), the US-government calls it NBIC (which is NANO-BIO-INFO-COGNO), and there is a wonderfull wording from the National Academy of Sciences (US); called „Technological Convergences Center for Enhancing Human Performance“, not enhancing human well being, but enhancing human performance. And the whole thing in their document is how you can have the convergence of the Bio, the Info and the Cogno at the scale of Nanotechnology. That has become a major credo of US-science policy. It has also become a framework of people working in Brussels working on Science Policy, but in Brussels it’s called C-Tech (Convergence Technologies for the European Knowledge Society) But it’s the same idea: converging nano-bio-info-cogno all together.

Really, nano is different, to talk about NANO as technology is absurd, it is a scale, it’ s a measurement, it’s talking about something you cannot see. Nanotechnology goes back to Richard Feynman, who got a nobel price in physics way back in the 40 th.

Feynman made a famous speech in 1959, titled: There is plenty of room on the bottom. This is the idea, that you can now manufacture bottom up, and actually build things atom by atom. The idea is to take advantage of the progress in chemistry and so on, take elements and compounds and have them perform in a way they don’ t usually perform at a macroscale.

I’ll mention three application of this, but in fact it’s the same thing: It’s the idea, that you can manipulate atomically. We talked about genetically modified organisms, now we talk about atomically modified organism.

By the way, sometimes I talk about nanotechnology and sometimes about nano-biotechnology as separate things. In some ways they are separate, in some ways they are the same. We start to talk more about nanotechnology meaning: production of nanoparticles in non living materia and we talk about nano-biotech as synthetic biology. That means, instead of moving a gene from one species to another, it is really writing the chapter of the book of life further, building whole new designs for bits of life in a different way. Synthetic Biology – is building life. It’s a much more complex kind of approach. …

Let me take one technology at the time and then put it together and explain how to relate this to the issue of climate change.

Nanotechnology has two major advantages as far as industry sees it, if it works: By the way – I am not a technological determinist, I don’t really think, that these things are made to work. What I think is, that they are being pushed because they want to change the rules – as we have seen in biotechnolgy. They want to change the industrial relations. At the end of the day, they have changed the world – but not for applying the technology, but the have changed the rules, and we also have to be concerned about this.

So, in nanotechnology, theoretically things can be produced with much less energy and they are much more reciclability, so it gets a resource-management issue. This is attractive.

The second element is more important and that is that at the nanoscale, a major change is taking place. It’ s like instead of having 1 period table of elements it’s like have 5 or 6 period tables of elements. As you move down the scale, the caracteristics of the nanoparticls will change. Some examples: I have some gold in this ring, gold is also great to use for teeth fillings or something else. If it goes to the nanoscale it changes color and get’ s orange. But not only color changes, it also becomes reactive. …

All the chemical materials, all the elements just behave in ways you don’t expect – exposed to high temperatures or pressures or strength. Everything is changing.

Another example is aluminium oxide(?) which is used by dentists to repair your teeth. Again, a normally „benign“ material, you put it in your teeth for your entire lifetime. Removed into the nanoscale, the United Are Force uses aluminum oxide to put it in their bombs.

So, next time you go to the dentist, check about the size! It’ s the difference between nice teeth and no-teeth.

This is the attractive thing for the industry, suddenly you could get rid of using some material, some of the raw materials are no longer relevant, you can use other raw materials instead.

Last week for example, there was a discussion on how to deal with Platinum. Platinum is extremely valuable, extraordinary expensive, 43 % of platinum is actually used for batteries, in cars and so on. Could you replaces Platinum by something else? A few years ago they discovered, that at a nanoscale they could actually use a combination of Cobalt and Nickel. At the nanoscale those put together will behave most exactly as platinum.

Last week they discovered, they could substitute led at a nanoscale for platinum and it would only by 10 % less efficient than platinum, otherwise it would be identical. That pays, because it’s pennies per ton as opposed to thousands of Dollars. So, that kind of change is possible.

Work has been done, when looking at copper for example. At a nanoscale you can basically use sand instead of copper. It’ s not only cheaper, but it actually does lead electricity the same way that copper does. This was shocking some people in Chile who were expanding the copper mines a couple of years ago.

You can take robber nanoparticels and you can make wheels, that human have to buy ones in a time, you can even pass it to your grand children. But it’ ll shock the 12 million or so robber planters, who depend on that with their whole livelyhood.

Or you can take carbon, simple carbon. And that carbon – this is supposed to challenge Nanotechnology – that Carbon organized at a nanoscale is 100 stronger than steel and 6 times lighter. So again it can be used for construction.

Or, if you spill red wine on your cloth, nothing will happen, because there is carbon fibers (at a nanoscale) on the surface of your cloth. It’s already out there on the market.

This all sounds really strange. But it’ s a serious factor we have to address, I think our task is to look at: WHO is doing it?

Last year, 2008, in the United States basic research in the public sector was 10 Billion Dollars, which compares to the Manhattan Project or the Space Program. That is the biggest science investment ever. And that’s only the public sector investment, in 2008 the privat investment in basic research in Nanotechnology was bigger. …

According to the White House, which is taking a lead in this area, the market for products that contain or depend upon nanotechnology in the year 2015 would be around 2.6 Trillion Dollars. It’s growing very fast. There are more than 800 products in the market place today. There is everything from foods – for dogs and humans, to pharmaceuticals to pesticides, computer and car parts of course, clothing. They are everywhere and there is an explosion all the time. There is a record kept of all of these products. Cosmetics (L’Oreal), suncream … Never use suncream, which is clear (not white but clear), that’s the one that uses a nanoparticle formulation.

The things that concerns us about it is: No one now, not a scientist in the world would say, that it is safe. They will say, that it can be controlled, or that there is a way to get it safe. But no one would actually say, it is safe.

That’s a real change in the last three years (before they said, it’s safe). There is a silence of regulators around the world on what to do about this, trying to find out what to do because the projects are out there.

Our concern is how to control nanotechnology, both in health and environmental aspects. We have to control this technologies as much as anything else, because it deals at an atomic scale – so it is fundamental to all the manufacturing. There is no field, in which it cannot be involved. And that’s manifested by the kind of patents that have been granted already in this new area. It’ s only about three years ago the US Patent Office has already established a division to deal with for Nanotechnology. Till that time they have been waiting….

The Examples of patents are interesting. One was a patent which applies to the nanoscale use of any of 33 elements of the period of the table. So, if you use those elements at the nanoscale you buy them in…

I don’t understand what it is exactly, but all they say: The same patent would apply to the pharmaceutical industry, the air-space industry, the chemical industry, the food-and-beverage and on and on and on.

In other words, for the first time you would have patents that can cut across first of all the whole period table, and then every sector of the economy. The same tool can be used everywhere. That means that you can have a kind of control over production you never had before.

That also means, that there is an economic concern. There is no longer a need to talk about commodities, because, we don’t know what a commodity would be useful for and what it would not be useful for? What can be replaced with what?

Craft Food – for instance – this sounds totally absurd, craft foods working with plus-elements. Spanish, Swedish and other Universities develop nanoparticles that we put into a liquid we buy in a food store. They suspended beverages in nanoparticles for that, wrapped up in something and you take it home and you zap the bottle to get whatever drink you want … say coffee, tea, scotch, tequila … you take it. Just take it. You just name it and zap it and release those nanoparticles.

They are quite serious about this, it’s an amazing strategy, they think, it’ s only five years away.

The military are using the technology as well. The Russians exploded the first nanobomb in 2007. The US-governments says, it’ s the most powerful bomb that has ever been exploded outside the nuclear bomb. According to US- records on the Russians explosions, it can flatten nine city blocks all at once. So it’ s pretty horrible. There are many other purposes and equipments for the military, there are books you can read on the nanostrategy. They developed what they call the nanosoldiers and so on.

I think that, when you look at who the scientists are, that are doing the work, who the industries are, that are doing the work, I think the entire fortunate 500 are doing this. Over 265 food and beverage industry are investing in nano-technology-research alone. They are serious about it, that’s becoming a big factor in their lives. And it’s impact on economy will be huge.

Let me say two things on the health and environmental aspect:

So, if you go down in size, if you get small enough, you don’ t even know, that the nanoparticle is there. You put it on your skin (suncream), they can sink into your skin and evolve through your body and companies cannot even measure the size, actually. There is no international standard yet for how to measure the size. There is three different ways you can do it….

The governments start to think about how to regulate this. In South Africa next year, there will be a meeting of major governments trying to make some progress on nanotech-regulation. We have been told by the US- government, that they think, that they will need till 2017 before coming to a global agreement on basic standards. But in 2015 there will be plenty of things on the market… So you can imagine what kind of regulation we’ ve put in place at that stage.

When you talk to scientists about it or to regulators in Brussels or UK or so, they say: „Don’t you realize, that there are more scientist working in Peking, than there are in all of Western Europe.“

So it seems a race, which has speeded up enormously in the last two years. Two years ago the leading country was the United States, followed by Japan and the European Union. Two years later, the lead country is Russia, the second lead country ist China, the third is the European Union, then the United States. There has been enormous movements in the last two years in this field.

So this is for me the modification of the commons on the level of the periodic table. There is a corporate concentration coming along with this, we have never seen before.”

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