E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Endorsement of agricultural biotechnology by FAO draws criticism and support

(Friday, May 21, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- The following four news items, including a piece by Devinder Sharma, pertain to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's endorsement earlier this week of biotechnology as a means of achieving food self sufficiency in developing countries.

1. U.N. Food Agency Supports Biotech Crops

The Associated Press

ROME (AP) - Genetically modified crops are helping poor farmers and have posed no adverse health or environmental effects so far, the U.N. food agency said Monday in a report on how biotechnology can help feed the world's hungry.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization called for greater government regulation and monitoring of genetically modified, or transgenic, products to ensure they are safely used and said more research is needed on their long-term health and environmental impacts.

In a positive report likely to fuel the biotech debate, the agency said the biggest problem with GM technology is that it has not spread fast enough to small farmers and has focused on crops mostly of use to big commercial interests.

U.N. officials stressed that GM products were only one tool to help poor farmers, who still need access to fair markets, credit and decent land. But they said transgenic technology has great potential for increasing crop yields, reducing costs to customers and improving the nutritional value of foods.

``FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed,'' said Hartwig de Haen, assistant director-general of the FAO's economic and social department.

``The international community must act decisively if it wants to ensure that this technology can also be accessible and useful to the poor.''

Transgenic crops have spread widely in recent years, accounting for 5 percent of the world's crop area and increasing by about 15 percent a year, the agency said. The use of GM crops is widespread in the United States, but GM foods face public opposition in parts of Europe and Africa.

The report comes the same week the European Union is to approve imports of genetically modified corn for human consumption, ending a six-year moratorium. Last month, European countries started enforcing the world's strictest rules on labeling genetically modified foods.

De Haen said one reason the United Nations compiled the report was to give the public and governments sound science about biotech, particularly after Zambia refused U.N. food aid in 2002 because the food was genetically modified.

Proponents of GM foods say plants that can resist insects and be fortified with extra vitamins are a boon to farmers and consumers.

Opponents say the crops pose unknown health and environmental risks, and the ones who benefit most are the multinational corporations that develop and sell GM seeds.

Yet the report found that while private companies have been largely responsible for selling the seeds, ``it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops.''

The report also said no known adverse health or environmental effects have been recorded.

Scientists differ on the significance of the environmental impact, saying genes from GM crops can be transferred to wild species. However, the report said scientists differ on whether that is a bad thing.

The report also pointed out some environmental and health benefits from using transgenic crops. Foods can be made with reduced allergens or improved nutritional qualities, and the reduction in pesticides has had ``demonstrable health benefits'' for farm workers in China, it said.

However, FAO said the private sector was focusing too much on technology for crops that benefit big commercial interests, such as maize, soybean, canola and cotton, which in 2003 accounted for 99 percent of GM crops. Some examples are GM cotton grown in Africa, and GM corn and soybeans grown in the United States.

Basic food crops for the poor - including cassava, potatoes, rice and wheat - have received little attention from scientists, it said.

One critic of GM foods, Greenpeace, has maintained such crops pose an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.

``We know there is ample food on the planet,'' said Greenpeace science adviser Doreen Stabinsky. ``Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions. It needs political will and appropriate policies.''

Louise Fresco, assistant director-general for FAO's agriculture department, said the developing world will need to increase food production to feed its growing population.

Those countries, she said, must figure out how to regulate and monitor biotechnology, noting that the types of GM crops in use and the traits generally applied to them - resistance to pests and diseases - are merely first-generation uses of the technology.

``The next generation is going to be much more important. It's going to affect many more crops, many more traits, traits that are of dire interest to the poor,'' she said.

``This is where the countries have to be prepared to say 'Yes, it's worth us taking an unquantified, unknown small risk but the benefits are going to be great because it addresses some real needs.''

To get biotech news from the FAO website, go to: http://www.fao.org/biotech/news_list.asp?thexpand=1&cat=131

2. FAO's Endorsement for GM Crops Will Exacerbate Farm Displacement

By Devinder Sharma

This is certainly a very sad development. I have often said in my writings/analysis that the FAO is actually riding the GM bandwagon. It has very cleverly, despite the public pronouncements that are aimed at the galleries, been pushing the GM agenda in the name of eradicating hunger and malnutrition. Biotechnology (call it genetic engineering) was among the five priority areas for FAO, but the reality is that with the kind of zeal that it was demonstrating in promoting unwanted GM crops, it overshadowed the emphasis on the remaining four initiatives for sustainable agriculture.

It is a sad day in the history of global agriculture as the world's only public agency on food and agriculture has now lost its credibility. It will no longer be viewed as an international organisation working for the public good. It has, and the process began several years back, been reduced to an extension of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) --- some call it appropriately as 'US Artificial Insemination Department' (ask the people living in Bangkok, Manila and Ho Chi Minh city) !

No wonder, the 200-page report was simultaneously released in Rome, where the Food and Agriculture Organization is based, and in Washington (where the USAID is located) !!

First the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), then the World Food Programme (WFP), and now the FAO, the USAID has successfully impregnated all these organisations which once were accountable to the public. Only recently, the WFP had tried very hard to push in unwanted and unhealthy genetically modified grains into several African countries in the name of food aid. The FAO is trying to push in unwanted GM crops in the developing world and that too in the name of minimising hunger and improving crop productivity. The truth is that while the green revolution technology bypassed the small and marginal farmers, GM crops will in addition add onto global hunger.

In reality, the agri-business industry, led by the biotech corporations, have spear-headed a global effort to further marginalise some 3-4 million farmers all over the world. Working hand in hand with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Breton Woods Institutions, the entire effort is to push farmers out of agriculture. The process that began with the demise of the small farms in North America, and then spread to Europe, is now being extended to the majority world. The GM industry is all set to drive out majority of farmers in the developing countries from their meager land holdings. The world will soon be a witness to the biggest human tragedy --- displacement of farmers from agriculture, this time not due to hydroelectric projects and big dams but from the take-over of agriculture by the GM industry.

Independent studies (including a study by the World Bank in 1995 for India) have shown that in India and China alone, home to half the world's farming populations, some 600 million people from the rural areas will migrate as a result to the urban centers by the years 2010. Thanks to FAO, by endorsing the USAID agenda, this process of social chaos and devastation can now be acerbated.

The FAO has now joined the troika -- World Bank/IMF, WTO and GM Industry --- and that too without any semblance of a meaningful public debate, to hasten the process of rural and environmental destruction and the eclipse of the farming communities. Usurping all democratic norms and against the very principles of 'good science' it has come out with a report which simply rubber-stamps the industry agenda.

What a sad day for the global farming community and the gullible consumers, what a sad day for democracy and 'good science' and what a black day for humanity. ---

Devinder Sharma, dsharma@del6.vsnl.net.in, is India's leading food security expert.

3. Seeds of controversy: Minnesota soybean, corn farmers embrace biotech

Joy Powell, Star Tribune
May 18, 2004BIOTECH0518

As the furor over biotech crops continues to roil other parts of the world, the battle has already been won in Minnesota -- where much of the corn and soybeans are sprouting from genetically modified seeds.

"I can do a better job of controlling the weeds on my farm," said Gene "Pucky" Sandager, vice president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, who sprays the herbicide Roundup on his corn and soybeans in southwestern Minnesota. "I can get higher yields because of the genetics, and I can do it with less spray."

He and other farmers, such as farm manager Bert Bouwman, who works for the Sever Peterson Farm in the metro area, say they are convinced that biotech is the way of the future.

In Minnesota, as in much of the rest of the country, the evidence is in the fields: 83 percent of this year's soybean sprouts are planted from genetically modified seeds, and 57 percent of the corn has been modified to resist weeds or pests, according to the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service.

Field of beansGlen StubbeStar TribuneBut throughout the rest of the world, many other farmers aren't using genetically modified seeds -- for a variety of reasons ranging from European consumers' fear of so-called Frankenfood to the lack of investment in agricultural biotech research in developing countries.

On Monday, a United Nations organization weighed in on the debate, asserting that biotechnology holds "great promise" for agriculture in developing countries and can help lift people out of poverty.

"It can provide farmers with disease-free planting materials and develop crops that resist pests and disease, reducing use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health," the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization said.

"It can provide diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. It can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses."

Anti-biotech organizations reacted swiftly. In Little Marais, Minn., Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Organization, said the report "was totally on the wrong track."

"If the United Nations wants to help farmers in and the poor and developing countries, they should be calling for increased funding for sustainable and organic agriculture," Cummins said from the small headquarters of his organization, which he says represents about 500,000 consumers nationwide.

He defines sustainable agriculture as that which lowers or eliminates the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers to avoid depleting the environment.

Same goals

But farmers such as Sandager say they are interested in the same goals, and that's one reason that they like the biotech products.

Even as the products have been flying off shelves, agronomists such as Joe Forner of Mid-County Coop in Cologne, which is in Carver County, have been trying to guide farmers away from heavy use of biotechnology. They worry that weeds might become resistant to Roundup, sold by St. Louis-based Monsanto.

"We didn't think it was going to take off quite like it did," Forner said Monday. "It seems like the farmers see the value in it. ... Actually, we've been discouraging it, but they still want it."

The concern, he said, is with resistance to the chemical weed-killer glyphosphate, which is used year after year, even as farmers rotate crops from corn to soybeans. Cooperatives such as his and the chemical companies have encouraged farmers to vary the use of chemicals when they can, he said.

That doesn't seem to faze local farmers. "We don't know when weeds can build resistance to Roundup," Bouwman said Monday during a break from scouting the fields for worms and emerging weeds. "But for the moment, I like the idea of having Roundup Ready."

The difficulty, said Jerry Ploehn, a farmer in Jackson, Minn., is trying to figure out ahead of time which years are going to be bad for pests such as the corn borer, a whitish-gray moth larva that drills stalks full of holes and munches its way into the ear.

"In some years, there's a big advantage to planting biotech, and in some years, the pressure from insects isn't that great," said Ploehn, who serves as treasurer of the Minnesota Corn and Research Council.

The same holds true for weeds. If they're not growing profusely, farmers might be better off not using the more expensive biotech varieties, he said.

Ploehn planted about 60 percent biotech corn and 50 percent biotech soybean seeds this year. That puts him below the state and national averages for use of genetically modified crops. Nationwide, 86 percent of the soybeans sprouting are biotech, while 46 percent of the corn is genetically modified.

Feeding the poor

Sandager, who as a boy lived in Ethiopia with his family, and later visited Africa, agrees with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization that biotechnology can provide a way to help feed the impoverished.

More than 70 percent of the world's poor still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their survival. A key constraint many developing countries face is the lack of agricultural research capacity, particularly in plant and animal breeding. The world's top multinational bioscience corporations spend nearly $3 billion per year on agricultural biotechnology research and development while the expenditures for research in developing countries are negligible, the report said.

"The key areas for action would be to have more funds available for public sector research in agricultural biotechnology to include staple crops of the rural poor in developing countries and to invest in capacity-building in those countries where most of the world's 800 million hungry live." Charles Riemenschneider, director of the U.N. organization's North American division, said Monday in Washington, D.C.

If companies like Syngenta Seeds Inc. had their way, more of the world's farmers would adopt biotechnology. Syngenta, one of Minnesota's largest seed sellers, sells products around the world and partners with the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board to develop vitamin A-enhanced rice for consumption in developing countries, said Chris Novak, a spokesman for Syngenta's North American operations.

Novak said Monday's U.N. report is important recognition of the role that biotechnology can play in feeding a growing population, which is expected to expand by an additional 2 billion people in the next 30 years.

"Agricultural biotechnology tools have been adopted in the U.S. and many other nations faster than almost any other technology, primarily because farmers here have seen the economic and environmental benefits these crops provide," he said.

Joy Powell is at jpowell@startribune.com.

4. FAO promotes GMOs as solution for the world hunger problem, a slap in the face of those who defend food sovereignty

News release from Via campesina - The international farmers movement

Is the FAO being taken over by Monsanto, Syngenta and other corporate interests?

The FAO has released its high profile annual report that turns out to be blunt propaganda for the multinationals like Monsanto and Syngenta who are imposing GMOs against the will of peasants and consumers. The report advocates the false argument that genetic engineering can play a crucial role in resolving the problem of world hunger.

By publishing this report FAO has sold itself out to Monsanto (which controls approximately 90% of the surface planted with GMO crops world-wide), Syngenta (the transnational that is currently forcing Bt-maize on the market), other GMO companies, and the interests of certain governments of industrialized countries. This report does not take into account in any way the concerns and proposals of the peasants and consumers. After the World Food Summit the FAO engaged in a dialogue with the NGO Forum on Food Sovereignty which has a broad representation of the key actors in the agricultural sector. In this dialogue the FAO committed itself to strengthening the principle of food sovereignty. The FAO's most recent annual report can only be interpreted as a betrayal of this dialogue.

For decades the FAO promoted the green revolution as the technological solution to hunger. However, the number of hungry people has continued to increase and now stands at 880 million. As a result of the development of industrial agriculture millions of rural people have been marginalized and driven from their land into a miserable existence. The multinational companies have become richer by selling pesticides, seeds and fertilisers at the expense of the livelihoods of peasants and small farmers.Now these multinational companies will get their way again in their attempt to gain full control over food production thus enabling them to increase their exploitation of the poor: With its report the FAO is paving the way for a broad introduction of GMO technology, a technology that carries high risks, and serves mainly to increase corporate control while destroying and marginalizing peasant-based farming.

One of the FAO's key conclusions seems to be "again" that hunger is a technological problem that can be solved with more directed investment in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Clearly, one of the key lessons of the so called "green revolution" is that hunger is a political problem that requires the political will to create stable markets for small food producers and give peasant families access to land and other productive resources. This is the only valid way to produce more and better food and to eradicate poverty in the rural areas. High tech solutions are not what peasants and small farmers need. And they certainly do not need a technology that includes uncontrollable risks and does not provide any progress for peasants. Genetic engineering has to be considered as a "huge set back" compared to the alternative solutions offered by agro-ecology and biodiversity management. Already the bulk of the private and public research money is going to biotechnology and genetic engineering thus depriving the alternatives from much needed support. And now FAO promotes this misguided technology even more!

Via Campesina demands a public retraction by FAO regarding this issue and a clear prioritisation of investment and public support for agro-ecological methods and peasant-based agriculture.

Otherwise, we believe that further dialogue is useless because it makes civil society accessory to a policy of introduction of GMOs, a technology in which we see no solution at all and against which we will have to increase our struggle and resistance.

Via Campesina calls for a worldwide campaign against MONSANTO and Syngenta who we consider to be the key actors and driving forces in this issue.

Via Campesina also calls for actions against this FAO position in order to make clear to FAO that its position is a betrayal of the dialogue and of the FAO own mission that states it strives to "better the condition of rural populations."