Africans respond to prospect of nanotech competition

In a piece titled When Technology Displaces the Farmer, Arnold Munthali presents the ETC Group’s concerns about nanotech-based competition for African farmers, and responses from the farmers’ representatives attending the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong:

“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…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…

“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.”

So who’s right here, ETC or the African spokepersons? The time estimate from ETC (perhaps five years) seems ambitious. And it’s true that some consumers would prefer natural cotton. But making improved fibers on-site, cleanly and inexpensively, could eat into the market for African fibers. However, the other benefits of nanotech — especially at the productive nanosystems stage — should dominate for Africa over time, we believe. —Christine

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