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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

3 Responses to “Africans respond to prospect of nanotech competition”

  1. Pace Arko Says:

    In the near term Mr. Chibonga has the right of it. The ETC (Like so many others out there.) has mislabeled modest refinements in materials technology and genetically modified crops as nanotechnology–in other words according to the ETC it’s merely new synthetic fibers and disease resistent cotton plants. In the near term, Chibonga’s right in saying African farmers can deal with it.

    But in the long term it’s clear that African economies are already shifting away from towards intense urbanization and manufacturing. Let’s be frank. After China, India and other parts of Asia grow too expensive, where is the next obvious source of cheap labor?

    If I were a visionary African policy maker, I’d be more worried about how the rise of fab labs, onsite minifactories and desktop fabrication would impact my growing industrial sector.

  2. Robert Bradbury Says:

    What a bunch of ca-ca.

    Doesn’t the ETC group recognize that cotton plants *ARE* nanotechnology systems? Though they are bionanotechnological systems, they have certainly been selected over thousands of years to be optimal producers of cotton fibers. Developing a ‘dry’ nanotechnology based system which is as efficient anytime in the near future seems quite unlikely. People are going to devote their attention and investment dollars for something we don’t have and would likely produce a very high ROI (e.g. long nanotube production and nanotube based cloth and cable production — for everything from surface materials in planes (replacing aluminium and current carbon fiber composite based materials) [or nano-based aircars, or even traditional automobiles] to cables or beams for use in bridges or space elevator cables.

    What one would like to see is a biotechnology based invention where “cotton” plants become “nanotube” plants (this is potentially much closer than dry nanotechnology based nanotube manufacturing systems because much of the manufacturing system — the cotton plant — is already built. If this were achieved one would likely see an increase in benefits to cotton farmers because one would have to decide whether to grow cotton or nanotubes. Given the high margins that growing nanotubes seems likely to yield, one would either see switching of other cropland (corn, wheat, etc.) to nanotube growth or see the price of cotton rise as the cotton farmers switched to nanotube farming and less cotton became available. Those situations are *not* bad for most African farmers, though they potentially do have environmental consequences (for more land to grow nanotubes, forest destruction, etc.) and potentially negative for people who can barely afford food to live (assuming increased nanotube production reduced food production).

    So the ETC group may be justified in having concerns, but the time estimates are extremely optimistic and they seem to be attempting to get a group which could benefit from bionanotech development to resist it.

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