Some excellent responses here to the recent report from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, 'AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY: MEETING THE NEEDS OF THE POOR?', which has led to media claims of UN support for GMOs.
Some of this (mis)reporting is down to carefully spun industry press releases to the media but the report itself does contain what appears to be some fairly naive propagandising, such as listing the failed GM sweet potato project in Kenya in a section headed, 'Examples of successful technology development'!! (p.97)
The FAO report is available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160E/Y5160E00.HTM.
1.UN hunger message spun off course - Food Ethics Council
2.Genetic Engineering is NOT meeting the needs of the poor! - International NGO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty
3.FAO nobbled - nlpwessex
4.Abusing the needs of the poor - Glenn Ashton (South Africa)
1.UN hunger message spun off course
Food Ethics Council, Press release
19th May 2004, 19:00 - for immediate release
Further information: Tom MacMillan on 07973 137185 http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/library/news/pressrelease19may2004.htm
The independent Food Ethics Council has criticised the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation for a high-profile report, published on Monday, which appears to back genetically modified crops in the fight against world hunger.
The UN report asks whether GM crops might help poor farmers. It concludes that they could, even though there is little evidence of their potential so far. This has been picked up by the US-led pro-GM lobby as a ringing endorsement for the controversial technology.
As a result, the report's finer points have been totally lost. Crucially, its call for poor farmers to have a major say in all research intended to help them, including a say in whether or not to use biotechnology, has been swamped by the recommendation for more government investment in GM.
"It's a complete contradiction to say that poor farmers should have a choice and then to deny them that choice by calling for blanket spending on GM research," said Dr Tom MacMillan, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. "The report even acknowledges that when farmers have been involved in research, they've generally steered clear of GM!"
The report hypes up GM crops because it asks the wrong question. "It's like asking whether computers might help poor farmers," continued Tom MacMillan.
"There are probably more examples of free IT facilities helping poor farmers than GM crops. Mostly, though, computers are the last tool that poor farmers want. It would be ridiculous to treat IT research as a top investment priority in addressing hunger."
If the UN had asked how agricultural research could better meet the needs of poor and hungry people, instead of focusing on biotechnology, it would have reached a much more sensible conclusion about the potential contribution of GM crops.
"This debate is so well-worn that you have to wonder why the UN took this line," said Helen Browning, Chair of the Food Ethics Council. "Whatever the motive, the result is a report that's really about trade wars and transatlantic politics, and not about fighting hunger."
Further information: Tom MacMillan on 07973 137185
Notes to editors: In September 2003, the Food Ethics Council published Engineering nutrition: GM crops for global justice. This report is available at http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/library/reportspdf/gmnutritionfull.pdf.
In April 2004, the Food Ethics Council held a major workshop on Agri-food research: participation and the public good. The report of this workshop is available at http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/reportspdf/agrifoodworkshop.pdf.
The UN report calls for stronger 'intellectual property' rules to help promote GM research. The Food Ethics Council report on Intellectual property and the farming world (available at http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/library/reportspdf/trips.pdf) advises against this strategy.
The Food Ethics Council is an independent charity that reports on ethical issues in food and agriculture. It is chaired by Helen Browning OBE, a member of the Policy Commission on Farming and Food, which reported to the Government in 2002.
The UN report is available at http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160E/Y5160E00.HTM.
2.Genetic Engineering is NOT meeting the needs of the poor!
(Press release from International NGO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty)
IPC is the International NGO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty. www.foodsovereignty.org/public/index/indexeng.php
IPC is a global network of NGOs/CSOs concerned with food sovereignty issues and programs. It includes social organizations representing small farmers, fisher folk, indigenous peoples, agricultural workers' trade unions; sub-regional/regional NGOs/CSOs which act as regional focal points; and NGO networks with particular expertise and a long history of lobbying and action and advocacy on issues related to food sovereignty and agriculture, which act as thematic focal points.
The following IPC Asia Press Release condemning the UN FAO State of Food and Agriculture Report "Agricultural Biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?" was issued on the 18 May at the 27th Regional Conference for Asia and Pacific (APRC) 17-21 May, in Beijing, China.
Genetic Engineering is NOT meeting the needs of the poor!
International Planning Committee Asia (IPC)
18 May 2004 (Beijing/China)- "FAO is retrogressing from the global momentum against genetic engineering in food and agriculture" says Sarojeni Rengam of the International Planning Committee (IPC) Asia of the NGO/CSO, referring to Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) recently launched report endorsing genetic engineering in the midst of Monsanto's withdrawal of genetically modified (GM) wheat due to strong opposition from North American farmers.
In the FAO report which drew strong criticism from members of the IPC Asia, entitled "The State of World Food and Agriculture 2004", it urged significant private and public investments in new genetic technologies for major food crops of the poor such as rice, wheat, white maize, potato and cassava and the so called "orphan crops" which include cowpea, millet, sorghum and teff.
FAO's recommendation comes despite increasing evidence on the adverse ecological and health impacts of genetically engineered crops and resistance from governments and farmers to the technology.
"We are not guinea pigs", says Philippine farmer leader Danilo Ramos, reacting to FAO's report which explicitly endorsed bio-engineered food crops as a tool in the war on hunger.
In 2002, Zambia rejected genetically engineered corn food aid from the US despite being confronted by hunger and starvation. The call of Zambians was "Better dead than GM-fed". Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe rejected the shipment of GM food aid to their countries as well.
Genetically engineered crops have been commercialized without the benefit of comprehensive safety tests and impact studies. Recent studies have shown alarming health findings such as the transfer of DNA from GM food to the human gut which proponents earlier assured as an impossibility.
Social movements, particularly farmers, have strongly opposed genetic engineering in food and agriculture due to health concerns and the potential impacts of GM crops in undermining the rich agricultural biodiversity in farmers' fields which constitute the base of world food security.
Leaders representing small food producers have been claiming that GM crops promote farmers' dependence on transnational corporations for seeds as all GM seeds in the market today are owned and sold by the world's biggest players in seeds and agro-chemicals which also enjoy virtual monopoly control over all processes, products and tools involved in genetic engineering through intellectual property rights.
"This fact debunks FAO's claim in the report that genetic engineering will benefit the poor if public institutions control the technology. Control of genetic engineering by public institutions will also not erase the health and environment hazards that come with the technology", explains Rengam, who is also the Director of the Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PANAP).
Proponents of GM crops, including FAO in its report, proclaim that genetic engineering will reduce the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides by farmers, and thus would be beneficial for human health and the environment.
However, recent studies in the US contradict this showing that there is a substantial increase in the use of herbicides on herbicide-resistant crops over the past three years. Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center found that many farmers planting herbicide-tolerant crops have led to incrementally spray more herbicides to keep up with tougher weeds that evolved and the emergence of resistance in certain weed populations.
The claim of proponents on increased production through the use of GM crops has also been shattered by recent experiences in developing countries. The state of Andra Pradesh in India declared Bt cotton as a failure, yielding less and shorter staple size than ordinary hybrid cotton.
"The FAO report trumpets the entry of the so-called Gene Revolution from the Green Revolution, completely ignoring the devastation caused by the latter technology" says Elenita Dano of SEARICE who also attended the NGO/CSO Consultation.
She explained that the Green Revolution package of technology consisting of high-response modern varieties, chemical pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers have jeopardized the environment through genetic uniformity and the erosion of the genetic base of major food crops, soil degradation, contamination of ground water, and massive pest and disease infestations. Dependence on chemical inputs and commercial seeds has brought millions of farmers to indebtedness, landlessness and further impoverishment. Farmers and farming families have also been exposed to the hazards brought by chemical pesticides to human health.
The promised potential yields of Green Revolution crop varieties were never really attained in actual field conditions, and actual yields have reached a plateau since the 1990s. While it is true that public research institutions led the Green Revolution, the technology that it promoted has paved the way for the emergence and later expansion of a few giant agri-chemical and seed transnational corporations.
"When will FAO ever learn?" asks Dano. She explained that decades after the Green Revolution, the number of hungry and malnourished people has ironically increased despite the substantial jump in yield and production of major food crops such as rice.
"FAO's report is contradictory to the statement of Assistant Director General of the FAO for Asia-Pacific, Dr. He Changchui" says Dano, referring to the keynote delivered to the NGO/CSO meeting in Beijing recently where the ADG expressed that "the world now lives in a paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty".
"We urge the FAO and Governments to realize the principles of food sovereignty, which gives rights to farmers and communities to produce their own food and make decisions on food and agriculture" says Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita, also an IPC member. "The Green Revolution experience shows that the problems in food and agriculture do not require technological solution but systemic social and political transformation that directly addresses the unequal distribution of the world's resources", concludes Fernandez.
nlpwessex comment: FAO produced a major report in 2000 which revealed that GMOs were not needed to feed the world (see http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/faoreport.htm ).
Once that report was given prominence by anti-GM campaigners FAO was then nobbled by the US and the biotech industry...
Since its 2000 report the FAO has become a target of huge pressure from the US government and the biotechnology corporate interests that it favours. According to the Guardian 14 June 2002 : 'A [UN FAO] world food summit ended in recrimination yesterday when it was branded a waste of time for everyone except the United States, which successfully sold genetically modified crops as a solution to famine'. One member of the US delegation led by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman made clear what the main US interest in the UN summit was: 'We're here to sell biotech, and that's what we've done.'
'Biotech' when uttered from American lips, of course, usually means 'GM' and little else. A recent article in Farmers Weekly (4 April 2003) entitled 'Growing credibility gap for US ag secretary Veneman' makes its clear that Ann Veneman's own priority is the promotion of the Bush agenda, and not the interests of US farmers - let alone of those abroad. Citing a variety of examples (including a surreptitious attempt behind the back of the chairman of the National Organics Standards Board to change US rules to allow non-organic livestock feed in organic agriculture) the magazine's US correspondent, himself an American, states: 'A lawyer by training, Veneman has served her main client, President George W Bush, faithfully. She...pushes biotechnology like a used car salesman... [Farmers] are under the impression she works for them. She does not; she has only one boss, George W Bush, and he thinks she's doing a grand job'. Before Veneman became Agriculture Secretary she served on the board of Calgene, the first company to bring a genetically-engineered food, the Flavr Savr tomato, to supermarket shelves. Calgene was subsequently bought out by Monsanto."
From "Tearing Down Biotech's 'Berlin Wall'" www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/genomicsparadigm.htm Press Release; Boycotted until 1200 GMT, May 20, 2004.
Selective references from the UN Report on Agricultural Biotechnology, (Agricultural Biotechnology, Meeting the needs of the poor) misrepresent the systematic problems facing food security in developing nations
By Glenn Ashton [in South Africa]
The UN report entitled "Agricultural Biotechnology, Meeting the needs of the poor" and supplemented by a press release, "The gene revolution; great potential for the poor but no panacea" raises some valid issues. However, due to its inherent ambiguities, it has led to a misplaced emphasis being placed on the potential of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to provide a solution to hunger and poverty in developing nations by most commentators, mainly from the developed world. In fact the report pronounces that GM or even biotechnology cannot be seen as a panacea.
Most of the initial international mainstream media emphasis has misrepresented important sections of the UN report. Instead of reporting and commentating, news copy has clearly been influenced by industry aligned PR being run on newswires, that is directed to increase the market penetration of those who already dominate the market in GMO crops.
Central to the misrepresentations made by groups wanting to use the UN report to support their interests (such as a prominent report from the US State Department, entitled "GM Crops Could Greatly Benefit Poor, FAO Reports") is the abuse of the term "modern biotechnology." This does not - as most commentators clearly assume - include only GM crops, but also other far more accessible, affordable and practical methods of biotechnology that do not present the same levels of risk and needs for extensive monitoring systems as do GMOs. There has been a clear attempt to muddy the water by passing off GMOs as a far more relevant option than they are presented to be in the report and which flies in the face of cautionary comments contained within the report.
On closer reading, while the report states that GM crops may provide some solutions, it cautions that they cannot be seen as the panacea they are widely portrayed to be. It insists that science-based criteria must be utilised to assess the usefulness of any input from biotechnology, on a case by case basis, particularly the environmental effects of GMOs. These must include transparent, representative and democratic oversight of any new GM crops or agricultural products. Such science-based oversight has, to date, been made extremely difficult by those who stand most to benefit by the introduction of GMOs. Hurdles to the transparent regulation or oversight of their products have been widely erected in practice and the undemocratic introduction of present GM traits has been insufficiently dealt with in the report.
The report even hedges its certainty about the safety of food derived from GMOs. While recognising that scientific consensus deems GM food safe under various criteria, it also points out clearly that these crops are not without risk and that a significant degree of uncertainty remains around the effects of these products over time. It notes that these risks will be difficult to detect.
The report also says that other aspects of biotechnology, such as tissue culture and genomics are more relevant and beneficial for the poor than transgenic technology. It therefore takes an extremely cynical reading of this report to arrive at some of the conclusions that have been circulated by both the US State Department and the industry itself immediately after the release of report.
The UN report highlights cotton as a success story in both China and Africa. In the Chinese example it cites significant pesticide reductions. However it must be borne in mind that cotton demands particularly high levels of chemical inputs to produce a profitable crop. Now, all that has happened is that some chemicals have been partially replaced by patented GM traits, that in turn absorb most of the profit from any yield increases. Any reduction in chemical use in relation to cotton is welcome but the original unacceptably high level of chemical inputs must be remembered when considering this as a so-called 'beneficial example' of GM crops. Cotton remains a high input crop and it is for this reason that it is so attractive to industry.
In the South African case of GM cotton, studies have shown that the data used in ascertaining the increase of yields have been quoted selectively and are flawed. Agricultural debts by smallholders in the main smallholder cotton-growing region have increased by 50% since the adoption of GM cotton. More worryingly the cotton industry in South Africa as a whole has laid off over 50,000 workers since adopting GM cotton. Hence it can be shown that GM cotton has disadvantaged rather than assisted the most needy sectors of society. Cotton is also a cash crop and does not address the needs of food security. This project has also seen significantly increased extension services, credit availability and other capital intensive inputs that are effectively ignored. Had these services been made available without GM crops, the results would have in all likelihood have been far more impressive, if a proper integrated farming programme was adopted.
African groups generally agree that a more specific research agenda on diverse biotechnology, without the current emphasis on GMOs, could indeed benefit developing nations. However, scarce national and regional resources inhibit such potentially useful programmes.
Extensive pressure from developed nations, especially the US, to accept GMOs has diverted significant expertise from the research and development of relevant and effective biotechnology programmes in developing nations. In East Africa, a multimillion dollar investment in virus resistant sweet potatoes has failed dismally, despite involving more than a dozen PhDs and graduate scientists, funded by the World Bank. At the same time a small breeding programme in Uganda has successfully achieved the same aim of virus resistance by conventional breeding at a fraction of the human and debt costs. Instead of building local expertise, poor nations are forced to put complex biosafety regimes in place in order to deal with the unwelcome challenges of managing GM food and food aid sourced predominantly from the USA. This important aspect of the misallocation of resources has been insufficiently analysed in this report.
The report also largely ignores the negative implications of biotechnology on developing nations. Crops such as "even ripening" GM coffee, that will allow mechanised harvesting, menaces the employment of tens of millions of small coffee farmers and pickers. GM-microbially produced vanilla essences similarly threatens vanilla farmers throughout the tropics, and most of who rely on vanilla as a cash crop to supplement subsistence crops.
The extensive planting of GM soy in Argentina has created soy deserts that have devastated the environment and driven smallholders off the land into urban shantytowns. These examples show the downside of the socio-economic consequences of adoption of unsuitable technology for agricultural development that have not been adequately addressed in the UN FAO report.
Developing nations are similtaneously being instructed to reduce research programmes, agricultural extension programmes and educational support as part of financial restructuring programmes insisted on the World Bank and other multilateral financial organisations. While they are forced to put management systems in place to deal with the challenges of the trans-boundary shipment of unwelcome GMO food and food aid, most benefits accrue to the transnational corporations promoting their products. It has also been clearly shown that when developing nations reject external financial constraints they benefit far more than by adopting such strictures.
A central issue that is not sufficiently dealt with in the UN report, is the particular importance of dealing with the onerous external pressures to accept GMOs by their promoters. While the report appears dispassionate, the extensive reach of industry and public relations experts are evident in its analysis. This is of real concern as many of the suggestions in the report primarily promote the interests of GMO producers and their cohorts, the large international traders in agricultural food products.
It is important that the UN report on Biotechnology not be seen as a paean for the acceptance of GMOs; it is not presented as such when dispassionately analysed. It is instead a call for diversification of methods to address food security in the developing world. This includes a far wider but less publicly visible and less 'sexy' set of technologies than GMOs, encompassing the broader discipline of biotechnology. The public at large must not be misled by misrepresentations and biased analyses of the UN report that serves mainly to promote GM crops that presently provide livestock feed.
Since the introduction of GM crops into South Africa, for example, there has been no meaningful alleviation of food shortages amongst the poor. In Argentina food security has collapsed amongst a glut of animal feed soya, creating the worlds first "soya republic", in what is a salutary lesson in the problems inherent to a neo-liberal privatisation not only of farming, but of the entire agricultural production chain, from the seed to the export quay. In India hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food sit rotting in go-downs while people starve because they cannot afford food. GM crops ar not about to allay any of these fundamental problems.
In order to address the real reasons for hunger and food insecurity it is far more important to deal with fundamental issues like land availability, agricultural extension integrated farming methodology and proper use of water resources. These fundamental agricultural support structures are far more important to provide if food security for those most in need is to be addressed.
The misplaced emphasis on GMOs in this UN report, offers a cynical perspective on how little importance the US State Department, corporate-influenced media and public commentators really do place upon food security in developing nations. As President Bush said just after taking office, "We want to feed the world." He should have added, "with our subsidised and patented crops."
Years of inappropriate agricultural development projects have failed to teach development agencies and donor nations the follies of their past ways. Nor, apparently, have these failed agricultural projects provided meaningful lessons for the future. It is important to analyse this report far more dispassionately and objectively than has been the case. Instead of proper analysis we have seen yet more hysterical nonsense that GMOs will save and feed the world, in a perverse Orwellian twist that the modern PR industry, abetted by lazy media analysis, has seamlessly perfected.
One has to ask; how many reporters have even bothered to read the executive analysis of the UN report, let alone the entire study? I would hazard a guess that very, very few have; most have simply relied on "industry embedded" newswire analysis, press releases in an exhibition of lazy journalism.
We cannot allow media outlets from the developed world to abuse the needs of the poor by promoting a hidden agenda that primarily seeks further control of agricultural production in developing nations.
Glenn Ashton has partaken in most of the UN FAO online discussions around the adoption of various aspects of Biotechnology over the past three years that have supposedly played a role in the compilation and publication of this report. He feels many of the cautionary inputs to these fora have been ignored and misrepresented to benefit vested interests.
He is co-ordinator and a founder member of SAFeAGE, the SA Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering, a network of over 250,000 individuals from over 130 organisations in South Africa, calling for a review of GMO policy in SA and a moratorium until such time as they have been proven necessary, safe and desirable.
This article is written in his personal capacity.