19 December 2005

Africa: When Technology Displaces the Farmer

Hong Kong — As the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) ministerial conference captures global attention, a new technology standing in the wings could be about to take centre stage: nanotechnology is already bringing a sci-fi reality to our door and could assign many commodities to history's dustbin, including some produced in the poorest nations of the world.

The Hong Kong conference, cynics argue, has all the hallmarks of a perfectly rehearsed act, and they point to the previous Cancún ministerial as the dress rehearsal. But while this meeting did not collapse like Cancún, there have been echoes of the disagreements that marked the 2003 meeting.

There are those that believe trade is not being equitably practiced.

Others, mostly from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are infuriated with the issue of subsidies in developed countries. Even concessionary gestures from the European Union and the United States to cut agricultural subsidies are met with cynicism.

Anger over genetic engineering

Equally livid are groups that contend that genetic engineering compromises their freedom of choice - quite apart from its contested side-effects on the environment and human health.

"The WTO should not force anybody to eat genetically modified foods. The WTO is the wrong place to be deciding what we eat and how we protect our environment," argues Meena Raman, chair of Friends of the Earth International.

While delegates are negotiating for better trade, however, Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, which campaigns on ecological issues, is of the view that some of the agreements may be insignificant in a few years due to the emerging realities of a new technology.

Nanotech threats and promises

Nanotechnology would revolutionise trade and people's ways of life.

"People might be negotiating now but five years from today, should nanotechnology go into full swing, those deals will be rendered useless," Thomas says.

Nanotechnology works on the principle of controlling individual atoms and molecules to manufacture items using building blocks a thousand times smaller than other technologies permit.

The concept behind nanotechnology is by no means recent. It dates back to 1959 when American Nobel laureate Richard Feynman delivered a trail-blazing lecture entitled 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom' in which he laid down the principles on which the technology is based.

According to Thomas, nanotechnology might become useful in producing all kinds of commodities including 'synthetic' cotton and rubber.

"And if you replace cotton, what does that it mean for Africa?" asks Thomas.

Cotton has been one of the sticky issues at the trade talks, with farmers mainly from developing countries complaining about pitiful prices offered on their crops by developed countries. The former, mostly from West Africa, contend that subsidies offered to cotton farmers in developed countries distort the market value of their crop.

Never heard of it

Dyborn Chibonga, chief executive officer of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi, says he had absolutely no idea about nanotechnology even though some of the association's farmers grow cotton in their cooperatives.

"I'm clueless about that one but even if cotton were produced using that technology, we wouldn't lose out," Chibonga says, and ruled out any attempts to lobby developed countries to halt the technology from being used on a large scale for cotton and other crops.

"I don't think we're talking about something that would become operational very soon and, moreover, we have conservatives who would insist on having clothes made from natural rather than the synthetic cotton," he says.

Besides, contends Chibonga, some of these fibres are mere fads which would not last the distance.

"Nylon was a synthetic fibre and it used to be fashionable. But it's no longer the in-thing and I'm sure that the same fate would befall any fibre produced with nanotechnology."

Equally sceptical is Collins Magalasi, director of policy with Action Aid Malawi, who believes that clothes made of 'nano-cotton' would be met by social and cultural challenges should they be produced.

Just fashion?

But with rapid consumer changes in tastes, and, according to Thomas, many Fortune 500 companies investing in research on nanotechnology, countries like Malawi risk producing items that have no international market. The US government is said to be investing a billion dollars annually into nanotechnology.

"You can come up with aerogel nano-material with which you can produce tyres that last twice as long, which is good for the environment," Thomas observes.

He says that nano-products would come in cheap, thus further closing out markets for naturally produced materials.

"With nanotechnology, you can produce steel that's 100 times stronger but six times lighter," says Thomas.

However, according to the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, among other dangers of nanotechnology, "stronger materials would allow the creation of much larger machines, capable of excavating or otherwise destroying large areas of the planet at a greatly accelerated pace".

Nanotechnology may not be as well known in developing countries as GMOs, but many of the fears associated with one ring true with the other.

With the costs of production significantly reduced and the safety of the environment at stake, the question is whether Africa can afford to bury its head in the sand and pretend that nanotechnology is another Western fad.

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