Globally we produce enough food to feed everyone, yet, losses (40%) are incurred during harvest and processing (developing countries) and at the retail/consumer level (industrialized countries). The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) mandate to eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition compels it to look at biotechnologies that will address food system sustainability and food loss/waste.
As an organization that has been working to promote the marginalized peoples’ interests, PANAP hoped that the FAO Regional Meeting on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in Asia-Pacific (RMAB) would highlight truly sustainable ways to meet the growing food and nutritional needs of the people in the region.
Regrettably, the 11-13 September 2017 RMAB at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center proved to be just another venue to promote the ever contentious genetically modified organisms (GMO). Over half of the papers presented were focused on genetic engineering (GE), with most of the speakers hailing the supposed achievements of Bt crops in improving yield, and looking forward to the commercialization of Golden Rice. Nowhere was objectivity seen, as when interventions from the floor nullifying the panelists’ contentions on the GMO’s performance were ignored nor given credence by most session chairs.
The RMAB is an offshoot of the 2016 FAO international symposium on agrobiotech’s role in sustainable food systems. Going through the proceedings of that symposium, one could not help realize that the key speakers, awed by the GE technology, look at it as the key to better crops/livestock vis-à-vis productivity, disease resistance, and flowering among others. At the same time, they welcomed gene editing through the use of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR).
Yet, the symposium in Rome had its “gold chips”.
Gunter Pauli’s paper on Breakthroughs in resource productivity is a discourse on why the GM track should be abandoned and why there is a need to shift or to go back to agricultural practices that are in tune with nature. As Pauli succinctly stated on the adoption of GMO in Brazil,
“The only reason why GM eucalyptus reigns is the prevailing institutional, technological lock-in of the paper processors with forestry companies, due to locked-in investments in millions of acres of planted empty forests. Even when the efficiency for the earth, the nation and the people on all counts from jobs to water are in favour of bamboo, the industry will insist on ‘business as usual’ refusing to rely on ‘nature’s best’.”
Hungary’s Ministry of Agriculture Deputy State Secretary Katalin Tóth’s statement is equally refreshing:
“Our scientific studies have proved that several current GM crop varieties have negative effects on the environment and the risks of the cultivation of these plants have not been adequately assessed. We think that the hypothetical advantages of some ‘improved’ GMO seeds are overshadowed by risks to human health and the environment, which are not yet known to their full extent. Unfavourable social consequences may also arise due to a greater seed supply dependency of farmers. We propose, therefore, to concentrate on the use of numerous other achievements of biotechnology, which have proven to be safe and having undoubtedly benefits and which are not contentious.”
Tóth’s sentiment was echoed by the Ministers/Government Representatives of Senegal, Cameroon and Netherlands.
The Asia-Pacific Regional meeting also had its own breathers. Among these are the (i) mudcrab biotechnology that helps farmers and fishers in the identification of species adapted to their farms; (ii) artificial insemination in improving livestock breeds for meat production; (iii) integrated aquaculture; (iv) tissue culture of hard to propagate crops; (v) use of wild relatives of rice to breed for resistance to drought, salinity and low temperatures; and the (vi) CSO presentations:
Dr Lim Li Lin of Third World Network (TWN) compared the outcomes of using drought resistant GE corn from that of varieties derived through marker-assisted selection (MAS). While the GE corn hybrids provide a 6% or greater yield advantage compared to commercial hybrids, the MAS varieties yield 20-50% more than the others. Astoundingly, organic corn yields were 31% higher than conventional yields in years of drought (Rodale Institute 2015).
Neth Daño of Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) emphasized that in many cases, it’s not technology that small farmers need but access to and control over resources. She put forward the need to (i) respect and protect farmers’ choices, citing that the adoption of GMO makes organic farming impossible; (ii) recognize small farmers as innovators and not mere users/recipients of technologies developed by formal institutions or sold by companies; (iii) support home-grown and locally-adapted biotechnologies used by farmers; (iv) harness local capacity to innovate on-farm to respond to climate, food and nutrition challenges; and (v) enable farmers to develop their own ‘tools’ adapted to local conditions and needs.
In Save and Grow, FAO recognized the failure and unsustainability of industrial agriculture, and acknowledged the urgency to shift towards an “ecosystem approach to agriculture that draws on nature’s contributions to crop growth, such as soil organic matter, water flow regulation, pollination and bio-control of insect pests and diseases”. It also recognized the Green Revolution’s inability to significantly reduce the number of the chronically hungry, which is currently estimated at 795 million people worldwide.
In its 2016 submission to the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on the Right to Food Hilal Elver, PANAP gave several success stories on agroecology. There are also documented cases on the field, most of which are detailed in PANAP’s book Replacing Chemicals With Biology: Phasing Out Highly Hazardous Pesticides With Agroecology. With these evidence-based resources, UNSR Elver and UNSR on Toxics Baskut Tuncak strongly advocated for the adoption of agroecology as a global farming strategy.
Thus, RMAB’s tilt towards GM technology is hard to fathom. Information from the grapevine is that the regional process intends to satiate its funders – the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Canada and Australia. The representatives of the CSOs and the smallholder farmers find this extremely appalling.
It is high time that FAO takes to heart former UNSR Right to Food Olivier de Schutter’s call for shift to agroecology and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) findings among which is that GE crops, cannot adequately address the complex challenges facing agriculture, and may often exacerbate social and environmental harms.
FAO should be extremely discerning of what biotechnology to support. It must be agroecological and truly responsive to the needs of the small landholders.
But then again, can FAO truly eradicate hunger and malnutrition through this patchwork tool alone? Global hunger is caused by the structural issues of landlessness and poverty of small food producers. Unless these concerns are addressed, FAO’s efforts will be futile.
For more information: Milagros S. Serrana, PANAP’s Pesticide Programme Science Officer, firstname.lastname@example.org.