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The nanotechnology threat to soil and the food chain

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Thousands of untested products embodying nanotechnology, the manipulation of natural and synthetic materials at the atomic and molecular level, are already in commercial production – in food packaging, cosmetics, sports equipment, clothing, home appliances – and more are coming online despite the total absence of a regulatory framework for evaluating their impact on human health and the environment. A growing number of laboratory studies point to the potentially acute toxicity of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs). The ubiquitous carbon nanotubes used in many ENMs, for example, have been convincingly linked to toxicological changes in the lungs. That hasn’t stopped the United Nations’ FAO, the World Bank and other international institutions from promoting their use in agricultural production in the name of “sustainable intensification”.

Nanomaterials in soil – our future food chain, an important new study from the US Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, highlights the specific risks to soil health and food production arising from this growing infusion of engineered nanoparticles. Nanomaterials can enter soil, and through it the food chain, through their application to inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. They also enter cropland through the application of biosolids – the residue of waste treatment increasingly laced with the nano-residues from consumer and commercial applications. 

Soil health, the basis of food production, depends on a fragile ecological balance of organic matter, microbes, micro and mega fauna, mineral content, climate and other conditions. That delicate balance is easily disrupted – and disruption can be fatal. Current methods of food production are destroying soil up to one thousand times faster than it can be generated through natural processes.

The evidence presented by IATP points to the potentially severe impact of ENMs in agriculture. Given the potential risks, application of the precautionary principle must ensure that these products are kept out of soil, both as inputs and as biosolids.

Defending soil biodiversity is a key element in defending the universal human right to food, but at present there exists no national or international framework for assuring that protection. This legal black hole is compounded by the total absence of nano-specific regulation for consumer products or worker health and safety, including the living and working conditions of agricultural workers.

Nearly 6 years ago, an international coalition of 44 national and international public health and policy, environmental and trade union organizations - including the IUF, the then-ICFTU and the US AFL-CIO, BCTGM and United Steelworkers - launched a call for strong, comprehensive regulatory oversight at all levels of nanotechnology and its products.

That initiative failed to slow the avalanche of commercial products released onto the market. New initiatives are needed, with even wider support. Mobilizing to build that support, against a threat undetectable to the naked eye, will not be easy, but it must be done.

IUF - Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide

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