Nanotech Database

Article Title:
From Biotechnology to Nanotechnology: What Can We Learn from Earlier Technologies?

Mehta, Michael D.

Journal Information:
Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society
Vol. 24, Num. 1


Mehta argues that the public should be consulted early and often in developing new technologies. He offers three lessons from the GM and biotechnology debates.

First, the principle of substantial equivalence rates novel products (e.g., GM foods) in the light of counterparts that are known to be safe. He says that the "use of substantial equivalence and a process-product model for regulating products of biotechnology is likely to find acceptance among future regulators of nanotechnology." However, Mehta thinks that "the use of substantial equivalence and reliance upon an artificial distinction between product and process has fostered a regulatory approach that excludes the public from participating in a meaningful way."

Second, as with GM foods, labeling is likely to be complex and divisive. He says, "[t]he lesson for future technologies like nanotechnology is that labeling is likely to be a complex regulatory and public relations nightmare. It is likely that debates over mandatory and voluntary labeling and process versus product will emerge when consumers are exposed to more products produced by nanotechnology."

Finally, Mehta says, while a rigid application of the precautionary principle will prevent some kinds of disasters, it will also block risk assessments of allergenicity and toxicity.

His concise conclusion: "Confusion over the use of substantial equivalence, a failure to put in place mandatory labeling laws for GMfoods, and reconceptualization of the spirit of the precautionary principle erodes trust and makes governance more complex."