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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Corporate vision of the future of food promoted at the UN

Press release – La Via Campesina, ETC and Grain

(Rome, Monday 15 February, 2016) Just when the biotech companies that make transgenic seeds are merging, the corporate vision of biotechnology is showing up at FAO. At today’s opening of the three-day International symposium on agricultural biotechnologies convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, more than 100 civil society and social movement and organizations (CSOs) from four continents have issued a statement denouncing both the substance and structure of the meeting, which appears to be another attempt by multinational agribusiness to redirect the policies of the UN agency toward support for Genetically-engineered crops and livestock. 
The global peasant and family farm movement, La Via Campesina, invited CSOs to sign the letter when the symposium’s agenda became public.  Two of the FAO keynote speakers are known proponents of GMOs, and the agenda and side events over the three days include speakers from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (a biotech trade group in the USA), Crop Life International (the global agrochemical trade association), DuPont (one of the world’s largest biotech seed companies) and CEVA (a major veterinary medicine corporation), among others. FAO has only invited one speaker or panellist openly critical of GMOs.  Worse, one of the two speakers at the opening session is a former assistant director general of FAO who has pushed for so-called Terminator seeds (GMO seeds programmed to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season), in opposition to FAO’s own public statements. The second keynoter’s speech is titled, "Toward Ending the Misplaced Global Debate on Biotechnology" – suggesting that the FAO symposium should be the moment for shutting down biotech criticism.
In convening the biased symposium, FAO is bowing to industry pressure that intensified following international meetings on agroecology hosted by FAO in 2014 and 2015.  The agroecology meetings were a model of openness to all viewpoints, from peasants to industry. But the biotech industry apparently prefers now to have a meeting they can control.  This is not the first time FAO has been drawn into this game. In 2010, FAO convened a biotechnology conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, that blocked farmers from its organizing committee, and then tried to prevent their attendance at the conference itself. 
"We are alarmed that FAO is once again fronting for the same corporations, just when these companies are talking about further mergers amongst themselves, which would concentrate the commercial seeds sector in even fewer hands" the CSO statement denounces. 
It is clear, according to the Civil Society Statement, that industry wants to use FAO to re-launch their false message that genetically engineered crops can feed the world and cool the planet, while the reality is that nothing has changed on the biotech front. GMOs don't feed people, they are mostly planted in a handful of countries on industrial plantations for agrofuels and animal feed, they increase pesticide use, and they throw farmers off the land. Transnational biotech companies are trying to patent the planet's bodiversity, which shows that their main interest is to make enormous profits, and not to guarantee food security or food sovereignty. The industrial food system that these companies promote is also one of the main drivers of climate change. Confronted with the rejection of GMOs by many consumers and producers, the industry is now inventing new and possibly dangerous breeding techniques to genetically modify plants, without calling them GMOs. In doing so, they are trying to avoid current GMO regulations and trick consumers and farmers. 
The agroecology activities were much closer to the way that FAO should act, the Statement points out, "as a centre for knowledge exchange, without a hidden agenda on behalf of a few." Why does FAO now limit itself again to corporate biotechnology and deny the existence of peasant technologies? FAO should support the peasant technologies, that offer the most innovative, open source, and the effective pathway to ending hunger and malnutrition. It is time to stop pushing a narrow corporate agenda, says Civil Society. "The vast majority of the world's farmers are peasants, and it is peasants who feed the world. We need peasant-based technologies, not corporate biotechnologies." 
"It is high time that FAO puts an end to biopiracy and to its support for genetically modified crops, which only serve to allow a handful of transnational companies to patent and to grab all the existing biodiversity," said La Via Campesina leader Guy Kastler. "On the contrary, FAO should support farmers' organisations and researchers engaged in collaborative plant breeding in the service of food sovereignty and peasant agroecology”.
The statement and the list of signatories can be downloaded here:
Media contacts in Rome:
Guy Kastler and other Via Campesina leaders
Phone numbers: + 39 329 665 53 44 and +39 331 188 64 35

FAO Symposium on Biotechnology: How the UN FAO is being strong-armed by the private seed industry

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Symposium on Agricultural Biotechnologies was held at the FAO headquarters in Rome between 15th and 17th Feb 2016. This particular symposium was conducted in the aftermath of the celebrated success of the Agroecology symposium organized by FAO in 2014. That the agribusiness industry was disconcerted by the euphoria surrounding agroecology and hence strong-arming the FAO to organize a similar event on agricultural biotechnology is no secret. Hence there was a strong undercurrent that the FAO was losing its proclaimed ‘neutral’ position in agriculture.

The conference took off on a note of FAO considering ‘every possible alternative’ to end world hunger and malnutrition, given population growth and climate change. The Director General José Graziano da Silvarepeatedly stressed that agricultural biotechnology was not limited to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) alone. Though this is true, GMOs dominate the global agri-biotech industry, and are extremely controversial, to say the least. Almost every speaker who spoke afterward stressed the same point so much so that even an unbiased delegate became suspicious of the speaker’s ulterior intentions.

The plenary session consisted of the following Keynote addresses:
1. The state of knowledge in biotechnology, by Louise Fresco, President, Executive Board of Wageningen UR, Wageningen, The Netherlands
2. Towards ending the misplaced global debate on biotechnology, by GebisaEjeta, Distinguished Professor, Purdue University, West Lafayette, United States of America
3. Biotechnologies in action in Brazil, by Maurício Lopes, President, EmpresaBrasileira de PesquisaAgropecuária, Brasília, Brazil
4. Breakthroughs in resource productivity, by Gunter Pauli, Founder, Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives Network, Japan

Out of the 4 speakers, 3 were pro biotech (read GMO) and only the last one, Gunter Pauli, spoke about creating systems and processes that used natural synergies and much more productive than agri-biotech. The same pattern was repeated over the entire conference, with civil society getting only one speaker slot out of more than 80 invited speakers. Of course this was expected as FAO intended it to portray the latest advances in agri-biotech. But what was not expected was the blatant advertising that the industry indulged in. From CropLife International to DuPont Pioneer, Borlaug Institute to IFPRI, they were all there to proclaim that the notorious agri-biotech industry is the only solution to end world hunger and help agriculture adapt to climate change. (Climate change is now the latest excuse these entities are giving to continue selling their extremely climate non-resilient technologies.)

As the conference concluded, there was a call to bridge agricultural biotechnology with agroecology. Anybody who knows anything about agriculture knows this is not possible. Agricultural biotech promotes monoculture, industrial farming, sky-rocketing input costs, concentration of seeds in the hands of a few elite companies, widening of the IPR net and resulting in the farmer becoming a mere pawn in this racket. Agroecology on the other hand is based on mixed cropping, low input costs, family owned farms and seeds, and is dedicated to conserving the fertility of the soil, the natural environment and the sovereign rights of the farmer.  How can the twain meet? And why is FAO being forced to build this impossible and dangerous bridge?

If a bridge must be built, it is the one between farmers of different countries, suffering corporate and many times their Governments’ biased policies. Small farmers practicing Agro-ecology is the best bet we have to feed and cool the planet.