Memorandum by the Soil Association
The Soil Association was founded in 1946 to
achieve sustainable and healthy agriculture. It is now the main
organisation of the organic movement in the UK and certifies about
56 per cent of organic farmers and 70 per cent of the organic
food sold in the UK. Organic farming is a management-based system
which harnesses natural ecological and biological processes, rather
than using synthetic chemical inputs. Organic farming now accounts
for about 4 per cent of UK farmland. Sales of organic food are
worth almost £2 billion per year.
The Sustainable Development Commission has called
organic farming the "gold standard" for agricultural
sustainability. Research shows that it has significant environmental
advantages over non-organic farming. It supports higher levels
of wildlife, whilst reducing agrochemical pollution, waste, and
halving the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce food. Because
of these benefits the Government wishes to expand organic farming.
Defra adopted an action plan for organic food and farming in 2002,
with a target of 70 per cent of the UK organic food market to
be supplied by UK farmers by 2010, and public procurement to include
As of January 2008, the Soil Association banned
the use of man-made namomaterials from all Soil Association certified
organic products. We were the first organisation in the world
to take a practical stance on the use of nano particles to protect
the public, ahead of any governments. Our lead has since been
followed in Australia, where the Biological Farmers of Australia
(BFA), the country's largest organic body, have now banned manufactured
nanoparticles in certified organic products.
Under the Soil Association standard, organic producers
and processors must not use ingredients containing manufactured
the mean particle size is 200nm or smaller;
the minimum particle size is 125nm or
We recognise that this standard will have implications
for some established manufacturing processes that produce nanoparticles
incidentally, such as milk homogenization. However, we are not
in a position to prohibit these now for many reasons: these processes
are currently well established, there is relatively little awareness
of this issue among the general majority of organic consumers
and licencees, we currently do not know which processes produce
nano-particles and to what extent. Until we research these more
fully, we will not apply this standard to them.
There are many cases of naturally occurring
nanoparticles, for example from volcanic eruptions or in wood
smoke; these fall outside the scope of this standard.
The standard does apply to engineered nanoparticles.
The following section outlines the key issues
and documentary evidence that led the Soil Association to develop
the nanotechnology standard.
Organic farming methods are based on the use of natural
biological and ecological processes. The use of synthetic nano-particles
which would not exist in nature and whose basic physical structure
has been modified at a very fundamental level is incompatible
with this important organic principle as well as unnecessary.
Specific concerns are based on information from:
(1) the The Action Group on Erosion, Technology
and Concentration (ETC Group),
(2) reviews of nanoparticle safety undertaken
by the European Commission and European Parliament and Swiss Reinsurance,
(3) the nanotechnology report by the Royal
Society (RS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), and
(4) the UK government response to the RS
and RAE report.
The RS and RAE state in the recommendations
section of their report that "The lack of evidence about
the risk posed by manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes is
resulting in considerable uncertainty... We recommend that the
UK research councils set up an interdisciplinary centre to research
the toxicity, epidimiology, persistence and bio-accumulation of
manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes as well as their exposure
pathways." The report also recommends a prohibition on environmental
releases of nanoparticles and strict regulation of new nanomaterials.
For details of the full report see http://www.nanotec.org.uk/report/chapter10.pdf
THE UK GOVERNMENT
THE RS & RAE REPORT(see
The UK government acknowledges the need for
regulation of and the lack of scientific knowledge about nanotechnology.
It places a moratorium on use of nanoparticles for environmental
remediation and states that "As a precautionary measure,
in the interim, exposure in the workplace and releases to the
environment should be minimised until the possible risks posed
by nanoparticles and nanotubes are better understood".
In a report commissioned by the European Parliament's
committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy (ITRE)
it is noted that "The release of nano-particles in the environment
should be avoided. The state of research concerning [sic]... the
behaviour of nano-particles is actually rather limited, preliminary
as well as contradictory. Nevertheless, the advice to avoid the
release of nano-particles to the environment might be appropriate
and would be in accordance with the Precautionary Principle."
(Haum, Petschow, Steinfeldt, Nanotechnology and Regulation
within the framework of the Precautionary Principle. Final Report.
Institut für ½kologische Wirstschaftforschung (I½W)
A subsequent preliminary risk analysis of nanotechnologies
carried out by the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate
of the European Community:
highlighted that some engineered nanoparticles
may have the potential to pose serious concerns,the most significant
ones relating to nanoscale technologies within the next 3-5 years
and require further studies (Subsection 188.8.131.52);
revealed that panel experts were of the
unanimous opinion that the adverse effects of nanoparticles cannot
be predicted (or derived) from the known toxicity of normal bulk
Swiss Reinsurance, in a 2004 review of risks
associated with nanomaterials (and nanoparticles in particular)
"Nanomaterials are already contained in
numerous products worldwide and occur in various applications.
There are indications that certain nanomaterials are potential
health hazards. The danger is most probably not of an acute but
chronic nature and it could be some time before it manifests itself.
This is where the real risk for insurers lies, and the comparison
with asbestos should be seen in this light."
They recommended that:
"In view of the dangers to society that
could arise out of the establishment of nanotechnology, and given
the uncertainty currently prevailing in scientific circles, the
precautionary principle should be applied whatever the difficulties"
(Nanotechnology, Small Matter, Many Unknowns, May
ETC Group articulate further concerns that:
there are biosafety risks of using DNA,
viruses, prions and bacteria in novel ways through nanobiotechnology;
nanotechnology will impact on labour,
including farmers, especially when related to self-assembly, crop
surveillance and the replacement of agricultural commodities with
new artificial nanomaterials;
nanotechnology increases the scope for
patents on nature and wide matter monopolies;
there is strong potential for new "nano
bioweapons" through nanotechnology;
there are significant cultural and ethical
concerns that flow from altering nature at this fundamental level;
nanotechnology is currently an example
of where there is little democratic governance over technologies
that determine our future.
HRH The Prince of Wales (Soil Association Patron):
"My final point concerns the apportionment of benefits and
risks. The benefits will largely accrue to those who invest successfully
in these technologies and to those who can utilise them. But these
new applications will inevitably displace existing technologies.
Who will lose from that process, and will it widen the existing
disparities between rich and poor nations? What exactly are the
risks attached to each of the techniques under discussion, who
will bear them, and who will be liable if an when real life fails
to follow the rose tinted script." (Independent on Sunday,
11 July 2004).
ETC has published a report listing 10 areas
where research has uncovered significant cause for concern over
the safety of engineered nanoparticles. (see document link
Fit with organic principles
Nanotechnology does not fit with organic principles
which state that:
organic is a whole system approach to
farming and food production and recognises the close interrelationships
between all parts of the production system from the soil to the
new or novel technologies, ingredients and
processes are not automatically applied to organic food manufacturing.
The lack of accountability of nanotechnology
does not fit with organic principles in which there is:
respect for natural systems;
ecological responsibility in food production;
consideration of the social impact of
Impact on the environment
Nature, in 2003 reported "...nanoparticles
could easily be absorbed by earthworms, possibly allowing them
to move up the food chain and reach humans", see document
The European commission has noted that "In the
environment, natural enzymes can change the surface properties
of nanoparticles such as fullerenesthe C60 molecule consisting
of 60 carbon atoms bonded in a nearly spherical configuration
also nicknamed "buckyballs". Fullerenes can form aqueous
suspended colloids... termed nC60 and become re-suspended after
evaporation. In their native form, the small size, colloidal characteristics,
and reactive surfaces of colloidal fullerenes make them ideally
suited to carry toxic material over long distances. Thus, potentially,
colloidal fullerenes could pollute aquifers." See "Nanotechnologies:
A preliminary risk analysis" subsection 184.108.40.206.1 Toxicology
and ecotoxicology - http://europa.eu.int/comm/health/ph_risk/events_risk_en.htm
Impact on human health
Titanium dioxide/zinc oxide nanoparticles used
in some sunscreens have been found to cause free radicals in skin
cells, (see document link http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/GT_TroubledWater_April1.pdf).
The toxicity of particles is increased the smaller they are and
they can cross the blood brain barrier. Gold nanoparticles have
been found to cross the placenta from mother to foetus. Cadmium
selenide nanoparticles can break down in the human body potentially
causing cadmium poisoning (see document link http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/GT_TroubledWater_April1.pdf).
Both the Trades Union Congress and the UK Health and Safety Executive
have raised concerns about the impact of nanomaterials on worker
health during manufacturing and use. The TUC believes that the
production and use of nanoparticles should be carried out in a
contained process so that employees are not exposed to the potential
health risks. Presently there are no agreed safe handling guidelines.
Impact on animal health/welfare
All the concerns of impacts on human health (above)
should also be of concern in relation to animal health. In addition,
research in 2004 found that buckyballs [carbon nanoparticles]
cause brain damage in juvenile fish along with changes in gene
function (see document link http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/GT_TroubledWater_April1.pdf).
Consumer acceptability and benefits
Some concern has been reported in the national media
as a result of the work by Jim Thomas/ETC and the speech on this
issue by HRH The Prince of Wales. However, it appears that other
than a small, informed minority, there is little awareness of
the technology amongst consumers. The use of nanoparticles does
not currently have to be declared on labelling although this was
a recommendation of the RS & RAE report and the UK Government
accepts this may be necessary. The report entitled: Market
research on public attitudes to Nanotechnology carried out
by the BMRB (British Market Research Board) and published on 15
March 2004, can be found at http://www.nanotec.org.uk/PressMediaMar042.htm.
The report mentions that the overwhelming majority of people have
not heard of nanotechnology. Participants drew a parallel with
GM when considering the ethical implications of nanotechnology
because of the perception that both involve changes at the most
fundamental level to form something that does not occur in nature.
Both GM and nanotechnology could be seen as "messing with
nature" in a specific way by "manipulating the building
blocks of nature". They expressed concerns about whether
scientists are trying to "play God".
We do not agree with controls based on case-by-case
assessment of the scientific evidence as the principal regulatory
response for the forseeable future for free nano-scale products,
at least for products to which people are exposed to regularly
and directly via food and health and beauty products. Such controls
cannot in practice be reliable, evidence-based, cost-effective,
or proportional. This is because of the lack of both a history
of experience and a robust body of scientific understanding of
the impacts of such materials on the biology of organisms, and
on ecological interactions, and because it is completely unrealistic
to imagine that the full range of required safety data could and
would be generated for each and every product (and it would normally
be completely disproportional to do this even if it were possible).
Inevitably, with such an approach, decisions will be strongly
based on personal judgements, and thus open to the bias of expert
advisers, politicians and influence by commercial lobbyists, whilst
being presented and defended as "evidence-based".
A supposedly "evidence-based" approach
is how GMOs are being dealt with now by the Food Standards Agency.
We and very many others see this as totally unsatisfactory because
of the poor level of scientific knowledge and shortage of relevant,
independent evidence, and we consider that the risks to the public
are significant. With every GMO submitted for approval, despite
the long list of scientific uncertainties about the health impacts
in each case and the emerging evidence of general health risks
with the genetic engineering process, the benefit of the doubt
is always given to the GM company (not a single product has been
rejected despite scientific concerns always being raised). This
deeply flawed approach is, in our view, the basis of the high
controversy and public and market rejection of GMOs. We believe
the same will occur with nano-scale materials, if they are regulated
in the same way. We and others would certainly raise these concerns
in public, in the way we have GMOs.
We instead propose that the principal regulatory
approach must be a generic assessment of the safety of engineered
nano-scale materials, at least for products to which there is
direct and regular public exposure. This should comprise (i) a
review of whether there is an adequate and reasonably robust body
of scientific understanding to enable case-by-case assessment
and approval; (ii) an assessment of whether the current understanding
and evidence suggests there could be health or environmental risks
in at least some cases (though which cases would not be known);
(ii) and an assessment of the viability and cost-effectiveness
of generating the required range of data to enable comprehensive
reliable case-by-case assessment.
There should lead to a general decision on the
use of free engineered nano-scale materials, at least for nano-scale
materials in food and health and beauty products. Because of the
inevitable negative outcome of this generic review, we believe
there should be a general prohibition against the use of free
engineered nano-scale particles in agriculture and the food chain
and in health and beauty products. Only where there is a clear
and specific societal benefit (excluding economic benefits which
can always be delivered in many other ways), should the necessary
data be generated and case-by-case assessment considered
This should not be considered a lost opportunity.
Unnatural products introduce new chemical and biological interactions
and therefore have a comparatively high likelihood of disrupting
natural processes with negative effects, compared to natural processes.
They also have a high likelihood of displacing as yet unidentified
benefits of existing natural substances. Artificial products also
generally involve a high level of embodied energy in their production,
compared to management approaches and natural processes. Moreover
and importantly, there is no significant general societal need
for nano-scale materials in food, agriculture, or health and beauty
It is not reasonable for the public or other
stakeholders that the reporting scheme is voluntary. This will
mean that the results will not be reliable as a basis for developing
appropriate controls as the results will under-represent any negative
effects. It is very likely (and must be assumed) that evidence
showing negative impacts from products already on the market will
sometimes be withheld or not clearly communicated (as is the case
with GM research). A voluntary approach would there go against
the aim of the scheme to gather evidence of the risks and produce
a reliable basis for controls to allow "responsible development".
A voluntary approach would also not be reasonable
with respect to the companies involved, as it would create an
unlevel playing field. It would effectively reward companies that
withhold evidence of negative effectsand facilitate those
applications, and penalise companies who release evidence of negative
effectsand discourage those applications.
Commitment to research
There is a major need to build up a robust and
comprehensive general body of scientific understanding of the
impacts of nano-scale materials on the biology of organisms and
on ecological interactions, aside from whether there are any identified
toxic effects. (The lack of a basic body of understanding of the
biological impacts of GMOs has been the major weakness of the
GMO regulatory regime, as the scientists have little general information
on which to decide on the implications of the inevitable numerous
gaps in knowledge for individual products. Commercial and political
pressures means they have therefore always decided in favour of
the products, with no scientific basis).
Good practice must include product labelling, product
registers, the quality of safety studies (eg. sample sizes and
time-scales that are adequate for protecting public health) and
complete transparency with regard to the results for any commercialised
products and products being submitted for approval. However, at
the moment, only moratorium is acceptable for products to which
the public would have regular direct exposure, ie in food, health
and beauty products.