A native of the Canadian prairies, Pat Roy Mooney is executive director of the Ottawa-based ETC Group (ETC stands for erosion, technology and concentration) and a 30-year campaigner on agriculture and biodiversity issues. He is a winner of the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel Prize”), Canada’s Pearson Peace Prize and the Giraffe Award, given to people “who stick their necks out.”

A longtime campaigner to protect seed diversity, Mooney has led ETC to call for a moratorium on all research involving molecular self-assembly and self-replication. “There is a critical need to evaluate the social implications of all nanotechnologies,” the group says. Soon after concluding our interview Mooney boarded a flight to Berlin, where he was to speak at a nanotechnology conference. “I”m in a lot more demand in Europe at the moment,” he said.

E Magazine: Canada would appear to be a leader in regulating nanotech in that it at least requires some disclosure of nanotech ingredients.

Pat Roy Mooney: Well, the U.S. government does require some information, but Canada is pushing harder from a very slow start. A report last year from the Science Council of Canada did galvanize the government to do more. There is no pending legislation that I’m aware of in Canada, though there have been intense conversations about it. Bureaucrats have been meeting about it in the federal health and agriculture departments, but it’s all very slow moving. I met with some interdepartmental committees, and they were shocked to discover that there are nanotech ingredients already in food.

E: The Europeans appear to be taking a tougher stance on nanotech.

PRM: The European Parliament [of the EU] is certainly concerned, but its executive branch, the European Commission, is less so. And it will take a long time for those rules they’ve adopted on cosmetics to go into effect. Nanotech in cosmetics is a serious issue, but we’re also eating the stuff. Some analyses say that it could take until 2017 for us to have the basics in place to fully regulate nanotech. That’s a pessimistic view, but it could take that long—and by then it might be a $2 trillion market and very hard to regulate at all. The Europeans want a global approach to regulation, and there are international dialogues occurring aimed at coordinating the regulations. North America is dragging its feet, and the Europeans are saying they don’t want to wait.

E: California could regulate nanotech on its own (See “Regulating Nanotech). Wouldn’t that create a lot of confusion when states and the federal government have different regulations on how products are labeled?

PRM: It does create a mess, but when a state is the size of California, it tends to have a lot of influence. California was the tail that wagged the General Motors dog in regulating tailpipe emissions. State regulation is not ideal, but in the absence of any alternative it’s a good thing. In the province of Ontario, we’ve just announced a ban on the use of pesticides and herbicides in backyard gardens. It’s just one province doing it, but the impact is large enough to put pressure on the industry.

E: How many food products contain nanotech ingredients?

PRM: It’s in 80 or so food products on the world market. Some of those ingredients are in food packaging, but nanoparticles from the packaging can get into food. These 80 are just what’s being disclosed by the companies on their own. It’s mostly North American products. We can’t be sure of what is happening in China. There’s a massive investment there; nanotech is huge in China. But there’s no obligation for Chinese exporters to report what’s in the food they ship out. And we’ve had some pretty bad experiences with Chinese food products. It could all be perfectly safe, but we have no idea.

Pat Roy Mooney © ETC Group

E: I know that you also work on biotech issues.

PRM: There are some similarities to biotech. There was an uproar in Europe when it was discovered that American companies had sold genetically modified and unlabeled corn products there. Labeling is mandatory in Europe. It was an error—some of the products sold for human consumption had in fact been modified only for livestock feed. Together, U.S.-based Monsanto and Dupont, plus the Swiss company Syngenta, sell 50% of all commercial seeds and have no less than 90% of the biotech seed market. And it does leave you breathless, the idea that these companies can monitor their own biotech safety standards. You’d think we’d learn from our mistakes. The big companies have investment in nanotech, too. Globally, more than 260 food, beverage and agriculture companies have investments in nanotechnology.

E: Will we eventually have international nanotech regulations?

PRM: It’s hard to know. I think we will have regulations in the end because the reports from peer-reviewed testing are so discouraging—none have given green lights. It’s all red or yellow lights. That can’t keep on happening without people saying, “Hey, this is not such a great idea.”