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history repeats itself




As reported by The Red Herring:

“Like biotech in 1999, the nanotech industry no doubt will be bewildered, blindsided, and then bogged down by ethical quandaries.

The biotech industry learned the hard way that ignoring the ethical considerations of genetically modified food, stem cells, and gene therapy cut profits, hampered investment, and slowed innovation. Odds are the same will happen to nanotech, despite some efforts to head off the backlash. Why would nanotech be any different?  Advances in science and technology have always been tripped up by fear and loathing.  Already, ethicists are starting to ask hard questions about the consequences of nanotechnology, like how nanoparticles can be contained, and what special regulations and insurance should be put in place sooner, rather than later.
  If lessons from splitting the atom have already been lost, we can still learn from the recent (and ongoing) controversies in biotechnology.

Biotech started out with the best of intentions, particularly in agriculture and farming.  By manipulating DNA, crops can be made more resistant to insects and pests or grown to contain vitamins and even vaccines useful to us.  Trees could be made to grow faster, yielding fruits earlier and in greater amounts.

But why stop there?  If plants can be designed to our tastes, so can animals.  Cows, pigs and chicken could be bred to mature earlier, saving on expensive rearing costs and labor.  They too can also be made to be more resistant to illnesses and yield better meat, eggs and milk.  By making food more plentiful and less expensive, we can help alleviate hunger as it exists across the planet.

However, as with any initiative driven by business, there is intense pressure to develop viable products and make money.  As a result, genetically engineered foods – also called genetically modified organisms or GMOs – were rushed to market without enough testing, much less than that required of new drugs created with the same technology.

Concerns about their effects on human health and the environment soon surfaced into the mainstream, causing a public backlash.  In a brilliant public relations move, GMOs were called “Frankenfoods” by critics – conjuring up images of Frankenstein’s monster and what happens when we play with nature – and the label stuck.  Stock prices plunged, products were recalled and corporate profits vanished.

For instance, in a very embarrassing and public debacle, Kraft Foods recalled all their taco shells sold under the Taco Bell brand from supermarkets nationwide in September, 2000.  Testing had shown that the product was made from genetically engineered corn that was not approved for human consumption, potentially causing an allergic reaction in some consumers.

Whether or not the product was actually unsafe is beside the point – the damage had already been done.  As an early introduction of GMOs to the public, Kraft and Taco Bell’s reputations had been tarnished; millions of packages were recalled in a wasted effort; the industry came under greater government scrutiny; and the floodgates opened wider for debate that should have occurred years earlier to help shape the industry instead of now slow it down.

The same backlash can easily happen with nanotech.  That's why we founded the Nanoethics Group –
to head off the potentially fatal issues that may catch up with the industry.
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