Nanodilems: In praise of constraints

At a time when a national debate is being invented in France, with new and multiple forms, everyone is wondering: how can we move from mistrust to trust? What signals, experiences and results can be used to meet a central expectation, that of feeling that one is counted and of having an influence on the future? The challenge is great: as early as 1819, Benjamin Constant noted that the modern individual "almost never sees the influence he exerts. His will is never imprinted on the whole: nothing in his eyes shows his cooperation". The powerlessness felt seems to reach its peak today in a paradoxical way. The rage comes from the shared feeling of a system that gives no hold. Even so, CivicTechs are there to include all volunteers in participation. One wonders, by the way, how can the latter be contributors? How can they be able to take responsibility for the chosen cause?
Open forum
Dor more than five years, the NanoRESP Forum has been experimenting, on a small scale, with a space for dialogue on a highly controversial subject, nanotechnology. On this topic, between 2009 and 2010, the National Commission for Public Debate "broke its teeth". (1). Cancelled or aborted debates have led to a finding of failure, all the more so as the commitments to ongoing dialogue and an information site made by the government late in the day have never been kept. (2). Yet in 2013, the VivAgora association took over the torch of the CNAM NanoForum, conducted between 2006 and 2009, to install the NanoRESP Forum. This initiative taken over by the TEK4life collective is sustainable, convincing and seems to be bearing fruit.

NanoRESP: three conditions for sincerity

Over time, the actor's postures have disappeared to give way to nuance and sincerity. No doubt because the network created has been secured by the diversity of participants, manufacturers, integrators, users, prescribers, consumers... and their equality of importance. No tourists here, but contributors who make demands on each other. We question each other as if we were "accountable". Each one acts as a sensor but also as a resonator to feed the debate. The diversity of the interests represented forces everyone to consider "foreign or non-priority" concerns and in so doing to approach a general interest.
The second ingredient is the purpose of the sessions, which are not consensus-building. It is a matter of digging into a subject collectively, of bringing each one of the clarifications while complementing each other. Thus a "landscape of shared knowledge and uncertainties" is formed, generating a common culture. (3). The Forum is perennial and does not plan to produce recommendations. The third ingredient comes from attention to real-life situations that mobilize practices and make explicit the chains of shared responsibilities.

Nanos caught in the food additive turmoil

Building on this experience, the NanoRESP Forum launched a working group dedicated to nanomaterials in food (WG nanoAlim) in September 2018. We are indeed at a time when nanoscale additives are being questioned and controversial, particularly nanotitanium. However, the criticisms coming from civil society go beyond the strict framework of "nanos" in food: they also concern the evolution of our food. It is therefore reasonable not to confine the interactions to the possible risks of certain additives - which of course must be specified - but to open discussions on the usefulness and alternatives of these ingredients.
The report by MEPs Loïc Prud'homme and Michèle Crouzet (4) devoted to industrial food shows a growing mistrust of consumers. He questions "the usefulness of the 350 additives currently authorised" and notes that "the high level of food safety does not reassure", perhaps because citizens expect not only that the agri-food system certifies perfect food hygiene but also that it limits the use of poorly or inadequately evaluated ingredients, the multiplication of which "can be used to hide the defects" of industrial products (lack of flavour, savings on quantities, etc.).

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In a context of transition of our ways of life and production, the NanoRESP Forum is not satisfied with the social game of frontal oppositions. It wants to open the dialogues to underlying criticisms in a willingness to grasp in depth what makes agreement and what makes disagreement. It sees contradictions and controversies as potentially fruitful forces. For the agri-food industry, it seems vital to question the motives behind consumer criticism, to move away from power relations and limited scope relationships of interest, to collectively address issues of general interest.

The contradictory as a springboard

Opinion No. 73 of the National Food Council on the Conditions of Confidence (5) details the springs of our relationship to food. Now far away from the places where our food is produced, we are in search of stories and images to represent the origin and manufacture of what we eat. Yet "food manufacturers are perceived as black boxes," insists the authors of the NAC. It is not certain that the new site launched by ANIA responds to this deficit, if it is defined as a simple response to criticism, at a time when critics are expressing themselves in the media. (6).

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To go beyond this "ping-pong game", it is a question of questioning the discomfort expressed. For all the signals indicate that we must change our points of reference and our production models. "The major players in the food market need to rebuild their legitimacy." wrote Philippe Moati in an op-ed piece in October 2018. (7). The economist, co-founder of the Obsoco (Observatory on Society and Consumption) notes the progress of an ethical relationship to food. "A growing proportion of the population wants to give meaning to their consumption, which leads them to be concerned about the environmental and social impact of their purchases". As the number of applications for "consuming well" such as Yuka, Open Food Facts, EcoTable, Ecodurable, etc. increases, demand is pushing for "technological traceability". For Christian Zolesi, associate director of GreenFlex, we are moving towards an "identity card" for products that will gain in value if they can prove their low ecological impact and nutritional benefits. (8).

Towards "government by fingerprints"?

This is how new demands are being put forward, which are linked to political statements that are far from being trivial. In his letter to the French on 15 January 2019, President Emmanuel Macron states: "I still think that the depletion of natural resources and climate change are forcing us to rethink our development model.
While we are seeing an increasing number of frameworks for gauging product quality (Nutri-Score, labels, AOC, GMO or nano-free...), it seems that we are moving towards footprint analyses that can account for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, impacts on biodiversity (pollution or predation) or water consumption, in particular. This would lead to a new form of "ecological footprint government," the only seemingly rational approach capable of taking into account global limitations.
Indeed, alongside the current logic of "government" through markets (with minimal democracy as in Western countries), through reinforced explicit social norms (see China), through procedures (algorithms) and finally through more or less violent political forms, such a new form of standardization of individual and collective behaviour "through ecological footprints" could take off. For better, for worse? Nothing is written down, but everything must be studied. In the light of a general interest, the contours of which will necessarily have to be defined and shared: ecological, democratic and social future?
Thus the NanoAlim Working Group will have to define its ambition for the end of 2019: to expand to new players to formalize an informative communication in the sphere of nanomaterials. Or to explore operational action levers to support players in the integration of new expectations. We could then situate ourselves in the dynamics of TEK4life, which supports consultation for biocompatible sociotechnical choices. Indeed, living organisms constitute the central criterion, which can be broken down into multiple characteristics (living conditions) to accompany transitions that guarantee food security and the habitability of the land.

Questioning the notions of performance

In this context, the NanoRESP Forum will open a new cycle in order to reconsider the notions of performance and situate the relevance of nanoscale solutions to climate and ecological challenges. The aim will be to identify the dilemmas between conflicting objectives and discuss the most relevant trade-offs.
Thus the NanoRESP Forum, through its methods and actors, constitutes a framework for anticipating and integrating changes in order to adjust industrial and social choices. It refers the actors to their share of responsibility by providing a technical, social and regulatory watch.
Dorothy Browaeys, Chair of TEK4life, NanoRESP coordination
The original of this article was published on NanoRESP

(1) These nanotechnologies that divide, by Noria Ait-Kheddache, L'Express, 23/02/2010
(2) Nanotechnologies: regulating uncertainty?by Stéphanie Lacour (Cairn, 2011)
(3) Nanotechnologies: regulating in a situation of uncertainty, by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, IHEID, Geneva, Le Temps, 12 Nov. 2018.
(4) Report on industrial food: nutritional quality, role in the emergence of chronic diseases, social and environmental impact of its origin by MEPs Loïc Prud'homme and Michèle Crouzet, 28 September 2018, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
(6) Christophe Brunet: "Major industrialists manufacture polluted, harmful products and hide it, remarks collected by Solène Lhénoret, Le Monde, 2 January 2019.
(7) The major players in the food market must rebuild their legitimacy, Philippe Moati, Le Monde, 25 October 2018.
(8) An "identity card" for products, by Christian Zolesi, Le Monde, 2 Nov. 2018

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