Poverty Express/Conference Pushes Biotech Acceptance by Third World (3/7/2003)

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1.Conference Pushes Biotech Acceptance by Third World
1.Conference Pushes Biotech Acceptance by Third World

At a recent gathering of top-level agriculture policy-makers from 120  countries, organic and sustainable agriculture took a back seat to a promotional blitz for genetically modified (GM) food and crops

By Danila Oder in Sacramento, California: 3 July 2003

The promise of food biotechnology was the main theme of the U.S. organizers of the Ministerial Conference and Exposition on Agricultural Science and Technology, held June 22-25 in Sacramento, California. About 115 government ministers and 400 participants attended the conference, sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The US Agency for International Development (USAID) paid the travel expenses of the delegates from many poorer countries, encouraging them to meet with US government and industry officials

A conflicting meeting hosted by the European Parliament meant that some officials of European governments decided not to attend. German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast, the only scheduled panelist from Western Europe, pulled out of the conference amid speculation that she did not endorse the organizers' pro-biotech approach.

The conference included 65 panel presentations, covering both low technologies like drip irrigation and high technologies like satellite mapping systems. But organizers, including two keynote speakers, National Science Foundation Director Dr. Rita Colwell and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug, repeatedly and enthusiastically promoted the promise of biotechnology. Both U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and Philippines Secretary of Agriculture Luis Lorenzo Jr., encouraged delegates to demonstrate "political will."

USDA Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford pointedly said: "As for the regulatory system of most countries: The dog may bark but the caravan goes on."

More Questions Than Answers

Throughout the conference, organizers urged attendees to make decisions about regulations and the health impact and environmental safety of biotechnology, based on existing agrochemical-resistant and pest-resistant commodity crops grown by First World farmers using refuges and regulated by well-funded Western agencies. The question whether a First-World style regulatory system was appropriate for regulating future biotech Third World staple crops went unasked. Nor did the organizers address the question of how implementing a First-World style intellectual property system would affect Third World farmers. There was no mention from the featured speakers or in the biotech panels of hundreds of recent lawsuits against North American farmers inadvertently growing patented plants. Nor was there any mention of recent near-contamination of the U.S. food supply from field testing of biopharmaceutical crops.

For many subsistence economies, biotechnology will be judged on its performance, not on hype. At this time, the biotech crops primarily of interest to the Third World - low-cost or free, disease-resistant, high-yielding, savable, staple crops like yams and cassava -  are not yet commercialized, though dozens are under development at universities and research institutes.

Many delegations were not ready to make decisions about biotech; they came to the conference with their own practical problems to be solved. A top health ministry official from Samoa told The Inquisitor: "we are looking with interest at the technology here, and asking, do we really need this? How can we access it and apply it? We are interested in biotech potatoes and maize, but if we bring it, will it bring any other problems with our own food crops?"

The Rwandan Minister of Agriculture, Ephraim Kabaija, was concerned that biotech seeds, like hybrid seeds, might be unstable and lose some of their desirable characteristics if saved and planted year after year. Kabaija worried that if Rwandan farmers use them, they will abandon their traditional farming knowledge. And he questioned the real benefits on offer. Cassava, one of Rwanda's staple crops, is currently being decimated by mosaic virus. "If (the) Americans wanted, in one year they could provide a disease-resistant cassava plant," Kabaija claimed. "I don't think they're honest about sharing this technology."

Flaws In The Biotech Sales Pitch

In her opening address, Ann Veneman claimed that biotechnology is already helping both small and large-scale farmers around the world by boosting yields, lowering costs, reducing pesticide use and making crops more resistant to disease, pests and drought. Some of these claims appear weak or unfounded. There are as yet no drought resistant biotech crop on the market, for instance, despite Veneman's claims.

The evidence presented at the conference from existing biotechnology  has not increased yields and reduced hunger. A panel consisting in part  of the biotech promoters' top salesmen offered the only evidence for increased yields: field trials with higher yields from Yieldgard corn in the Philippines, and two years experience with insect-protected cotton in South Africa.
Even so, a 2002 Soil Association report on North America found that, based on the six years of evidence, increased yields from biotech crops have generally not materialized, and for Roundup Ready soybeans, yields have decreased from 6-11%. For more information, go to

Indeed, current biotech corn and soybean crops are primarily used for  animal food. The Philippine corn farmer said that the higher-yielding  biotech corn will be used to feed animals and support growing Philippine  demand for chicken and pork. Monsanto Vice President Dr. Robert Fraley  told the panel the world will need 75% more food in 20 years, mostly because people are dramatically increasing their consumption of animal products.

Kenyan-born Harvard University Professor Calestous Juma told the audience that agriculture ministers should create scientific advisory bodies to deal with biotechnology. Juma argued that the debate over biotech has been controlled by ministries of environment and health. He said moving the debate to science was essential, "when you have an installed constituency that continually argues against it."

Corporate Control Attacked and Organics Ignored

Events and protests organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tried to spotlight the issues of corporate control of seeds and intellectual property rights that favor corporations over farmers. Carolyn Lucas, a British Green Party member of the European Parliament told the  audience at an outside NGO-sponsored panel : "If [genetically-modified organisms] are safe, why are the GM companies doing all they can to lobby me and my colleagues in the European Parliament to exempt them from liability?"

Contamination of wild and organic plants remains a major focus of concern for anti-biotech groups. Worries have grown since 2001, when scientists found that wild corn in its Mexican homeland contained DNA from biotech corn seeds intended for food. Yet when Mexican Environment Minister Victor Del Angel asked Monsanto's Fraley what could be done to prevent the contamination of genetic resources, Fraley downplayed the issue, saying: "this is not contamination, this is the natural flow of genes that has gone on for thousands of years."

At the conference, organic farming was ignored. None of the featured speakers mentioned organics, only one panel speaker at the event focused on organic approaches, and the USDA did not have a booth at the accompanying exposition to display its new national organic certification program. The 12 nearby field trips provided for the delegates - including a dairy, a rice miller and an eco-pesticide manufacturer - did not include an organic farm.

At a colorful booth at the product exhibition, California Certified Organic Farmers displayed dozens of varieties of flawless fresh fruits and vegetables. CCOF President Brian Leahy said at least 20 ministers had spoken with the CCOF staff about organic production and certification, both for local markets and for export. A dinner hosted by the International Forum on Globalization and designed by chef and organics advocate Alice Waters featured speeches by anti-biotech activists including Consumers Union scientist Dr. Michael Hanson, American lawyer Andrew Kimbrell and Monsanto-sued Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser.

Biotech Protests Likely To Continue

A crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 biotech critics marched through downtown Sacramento, monitored by about 1,000 police, with armored vehicles, riot gear, plastic handcuffs and guns. The heavy police presence amounted to "a concerted strategy to be intimidating," Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera reportedly told the local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee.  Police lined the streets around the convention center, and turned its perimeter into a no-pass zone. Several dozen people were arrested, some for occupying a closed community garden and others while complying with police orders.

Inside the conference hall, some panelists criticized the protesters for masking concerns about trade and globalization with complaints about the health and environmental safety of biotech. Yet Gregory Jaffe, a representative of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a moderately pro-biotech consumer group favored by the USDA, warned that that protesters will not go away. "If people's concerns are not addressed," said Jaffe, "they will wrap their ethical, religious, economic and trade concerns around a safety concern".
2.Poverty Express
SchNEWS , Friday 4th July 2003, Issue 413

"Hunger is a complex phenomenon that cannot be solved by technology alone. We need political commitment and not technology." - Anuradha Mittal Food First.

Last week was a busy one for the biotech industry. In Sacramento, California a $3 million shindig organised by the US Department of Agriculture was attended by government ministers from 112 countries, with the aim "to bring countries together to launch a major new front in the battle against global hunger and poverty."  All very noble except the solution is being provided by the big biotech corporations who want to solve world hunger by stuffing genetically mutated foods down all our throats and lining their own pockets.

The conference was closed to the public and surrounded by robocops with helicopters and a tank. Luckily some 'killer tomatoes' and a few thousand other protestors including farmers gathered to vent their disapproval that all was not well in their cosy world of corporate gene-fiddling. Walt Kessler, a dairy farmer said "The truth about GE crops and their impacts on family farmers is being buried in the slick multi-million dollar public relations campaign being waged by the biotechnology industry and promoted by the US Dept of Agriculture," while Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farmworkers Union told a rally "This isn't about feeding people throughout the world. It's about Monsanto or other large corporations making profits from selling GE food. If they really wanted to feed us, they would feed us healthy food. In fact, a lot of food is thrown away in the U.S. because it's considered surplus."

Even the big man Bush himself has been busy trying to feed the world (well it makes a change from bombing it). He told 5,000 delegates at the Biotechnology Industry Organisation conference in Washington that European opposition to GM food was impeding efforts to fight starvation in Africa - and nothing to do with the fact that the US has a huge surplus of GM crops it wants to offload.

However not everyone believes that GM foods will help reduce African poverty. Amadou Kanoute of Consumers International Office for Africa argued that it "will plunge Africa into greater food dependency." In fact the argument that GM will feed the world is the last throw of the dice for a desperate industry fed up with stubborn resistance to its technology and falling sales. In many research studies GM crop yields have been significantly lower than conventional ones. Worse, research has revealed an alarming spread of GE corn genes in Mexico in fields many miles from where GM corn was planted. The drift of GE crop genes to fields planted with organic and conventional crops is something that is impossible to contain.

In 1998 a delegation representing every African country except South Africa put a joint statement to a UN conference on genetic research. The delegates had been 'inspired' by a Monsanto campaign that used images of starving African children to plug its technology. The statement read "We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st Century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge, and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."

A new report by Food First argues that there is already enough food in the world to feed the population one and a half times over and that it is poverty and inequality that is leading to starvation. In fact, almost 80 percent of the countries that face hunger are food-exporting nations. As one of the report's authors Silvia Ribeiro put it  "They benefit the richest people in the world, not the hungriest...GE crops are designed to take control of production of food away from local communities, by creating greater dependence on huge agribusiness corporations for seed and pesticides."

In the US this has already happened with farmers under the control of a handful of multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont. Legally binding agreements force them to buy expensive new seeds from the biotech corporations each season, as well as the corporations' herbicides - and company inspectors check up on farmers land to see if any crops have re-seeded. They can then claim that farmers are growing unlicensed crops and infringing their 'intellectual property rights'! Already some farmers have been given huge fines and there are legal actions pending against 550 North American farmers.

With the European Union this week voting that all genetically modified foods must be traceable and clearly labelled - and America pressing the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to rule that this is an unfair barrier to trade - it's going to be fireworks at the WTO's next big meeting in Cancun, Mexico this September.  This is set to be one of the WTO's most important rulings, and may start a huge trade war with the US. It is also a big test to see who the WTO will side with: elected officials and ordinary people, or US corporations? If the past is anything to go by it doesn't look good...

* Read 'Voices from the South: The Third World Debunks Corporate Myths on Genetically Engineered Crops' www.foodfirst.org

* Check out the excellent GeneWatch site to find out about some of the questions and issues that exist around GM crops and food www.genewatch.org. And get yerself a copy of this months 'Ecologist' magazine 01795 414963

* Find out about the protests planned at the WTO in Mexico

* Early last Sunday morning sixty protestors ripped up Syngenta's trial of genetically modified wheat at its Jealott's Hill Research Centre near Bracknell just before it was due to pollinate and spread to the surrounding countryside. This is the latest in a successful line of crop trashings this year.
Sustainable agriculture projects have led to millet yields rising up to 154 per cent in India, millet and sorghum yields rising by 275 per cent in Burkina Faso and maize yields increasing by 300 per cent in Honduras. Combined with land reforms, protection from subsidized food and moving food production away from export to growing for local communities, sustainable farming could feed the world. www.ukabc.org/wfs5+.htm

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