Archive for February 2016
The matter that faces us now concerning the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is: how should we consider what its activities represent? Like other UN agencies, the FAO works according to a mandate, which is agreed upon by its member states. Where the FAO is concerned, that mandate has to do with agriculture, not in the form of crops produced per hectare or acre, but in terms of who the cultivators and growers are, what their living and working conditions are, and the manner in which the crop and food they produce reaches the hands of those who need it.
Looked at in this way, an organisation such as the FAO has as one of its responsibilities the provision of support, in as many ways as possible, of the majority of those who grow food and the majority of those who buy food. In recent years however, the UN FAO has set aside this responsibility, deliberately and according to a plan. This dereliction of duty – in fact it is a duty agreed upon by FAO member states, of which there are 197 – can only be explained in one way: the FAO of today no longer represents the smallholder cultivator and farmer and peasant, and no longer represents the rural communities for whom agriculture is a dominant part of their biocultural life.
If the FAO now functions as an industry association (that is, representing the interests of a range of industries and technologies within the agriculture and food sector) then that is the choice of the organisation, presumably with the consent of the member states. However, such a deviation from its role hitherto then calls into question the funding it receives from said members, for that funding has for the 70 years of the organisation’s existence been predicated upon the FAO fulfilling its responsibility towards smallholder and peasant farmers, wherever in the world they may be. If the FAO is today an industry organisation – which its recent actions proclaim it to be – then the 197 member states must stop giving the organisation an annual contribution.
Will such a cessation of financial support make a difference to the FAO of 2016? Let us examine how the organisation is funded. The total FAO Budget planned for 2016-17 is US$ 2.6 billion. Of this amount, 39% comes from contributions paid by member countries, whereas 61% is to come from what are called “voluntary contributions from members and other partners”. Some countries pay more than others, some very much more, some not at all. The USA maintains an outstanding towards the FAO that is ludicrous – it is US$ 96.97 million in arrears.
But what is of concern to us is the alteration in the balance of the members’ contributions and the so-called voluntary contributions, in the rough ration of 40 to 60. This means that 6 out of 10 dollars that the FAO receives is used for what the organisation calls “support technical and emergency (including rehabilitation) assistance to governments for clearly defined purposes linked to the results framework” and which is different from the activities provided for under the “regular budget”.
Under the circumstances that I have just described therefore, the FAO-hosted international symposium, titled ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’, which is under way 15-17 February 2016, is what any trade organisation would call an interest group gathering with an intent to change policy and practice in a manner that profits and benefits the members of that interest group.
It is opaque to us for now, based on the information provided by the FAO on this symposium, whether the money spent on transporting to Rome “over 400 scientists, representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives” for a conference to “explore how agricultural bio-technologies can benefit family farmers, particularly those in developing countries, who need to improve nutrition and food systems while facing the challenges of poverty, climate change, and population growth” – whether the money spent to do so comes out of the regular budget or out of a voluntary contribution. An answer either way must only lead to further very critical questions asked of the FAO senior management.
These questions must be asked of FAO at all levels – particularly in FAO member states whose contributions to the organisation’s regular budget may be minuscule, but whose food and agriculture line ministries and departments, whose institutions and laboratories are induced or coerced into accepting an “inter-governmentally mandated package of best practices” that does everything to help the international agriculture biotechnology and industrial crop cultivation corporations and traders, and nothing whatsoever for those member countries’ peasant and smallholder farmers.
What the FAO is doing with this bio-technology symposium is worse than unconscionable and worse than being wilfully unmindful about the evidence of the harm – to animal populations, ecosystems and humans – caused by biotechnologies and especially those employed for agricultural purposes. The serious harm to health and the ecological and agronomical impacts of glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant crops for example are the most thoroughly researched. The same kind of evidence has now emerged for Bt crops and Bt toxins. Evidence that genetic modification per se is harmful is as broad and unimpeachable, with the uncontrollable processes of genetic modification having led to the phenomena of antibiotic resistance (reported from all over the world), the creation of new pathogens, the incidence of cancers, and the hijacking of the human body’s natural nucleic acids to do harm.
It is deliberately misleading and deeply cynical for the FAO to claim, with a banal insouciance, that this symposium “focuses mainly on the broad range of biotechnologies that could result in yield increases, better nutritional qualities, and improved productivities of crops, livestock, fish and trees benefitting family farmers and their food systems, nutrition and livelihoods”. This is the sort of cartoonish PR piffle that the UN sustainable development goals (the SDGs) have been wrapped in to appeal to the social media tendencies of the world’s teenagers.
For the last two years out of the four that José Graziano da Silva has been at the head of the organisation, the tilt towards industrial agriculture and biotechnology has become very much more pronounced compared with the already sorry condition the organisation was during the second term of Jacques Diouf (the Senegalese diplomat who was director-general from January 1994 to 31 December 2011). Under da Silva the “agriculture for nutrition” campaign line has become very much more prevalent, and has been supported – voluntary contributions facilitated by the FAO’s Partnerships and Advocacy Branch (an office by itself, and a very industrious one) – by a host of private sector networks and consortia whose interests encompass biofortification, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural biotechnologies.
The symposium has been condemned fiercely and jointly by 42 international and regional organisations with 131 national and local organisations (173 in all) led by La Via Campesina, Grain and ETC Group. “It is clear that, through the FAO, industry wants 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,” is Via Campesina’s statement which adds that GMO use “throws farmers off the land” while “the industrial food system that it promotes is one of the main drivers of climate change”.
The same corporations (feted by FAO as valuable private sector partners) are going beyond conventional GMO plant varieties toward ‘extreme biotech’ strategies such as synthetic biology to create new genetic constructs, Via Campesina has warned. “Not only do they ignore the rights of farmers, they are using biotechnologies to patent plant genes that are already in peasants’ fields and that we have selected ourselves. They want to forbid us to produce our own seeds and oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs. In animal husbandry and fisheries where transgenic salmon and pigs already exist, we see the same scenario, the strengthening of industrial production and the increase in the use of antibiotics.”
Grain, which works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, has in its comments said that two of the FAO keynote speakers at the symposium 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 agro-chemicals 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,” Grain has said (that one is from Via Campesina). “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.”
Just when the biotech companies that make transgenic seeds are merging, the ETC Group has stated (with Syngenta having agreed to sell itself and its technologies to the government-owned China National Chemical Corporation, or ChemChina, only a fortnight ago), “the corporate vision of biotechnology is showing up at FAO” with the symposium being “another attempt by multinational agribusiness to redirect the policies of the UN agency toward support for GMOs”. ETC Group has demanded that FAO put an end to biopiracy and to its support for genetically modified crops, but as I have outlined earlier, the biotechnology purveyors in the FAO will have none of it because the structures of funding and control have been altered perhaps beyond the reach of the organisation’s member states.
What is left to do? Proscribe the UN FAO for its anti-small farmer and anti-peasant activities, encourage members states to demand that FAO mend its ways or step out of the organisation, and meanwhile demand that governments central and local ban all environmental releases of GMOs and synthetic biology. As the 173 signatories to the statement on the symposium show through their work, action can be taken locally in communities, villages, towns, municipalities, regions, as well as nationally and globally. As for the benighted symposium, here is a news article by FAO on the conference, this is the page for the event, the brochure, summaries of presentations (which provide one more confirmation of the fundamentally destructive intentions of the biotech industry), and a ‘key messages’ sheet from FAO whose manner and attitudes betray the extent to which an industrial mind now runs this particular UN agency.
Monkey-themed stamps are being issued by postal services all over the world to welcome the Year of the Monkey; Chinese television audiences are angry that a popular monkey king actor hasn’t been invited to big broadcaster CCTV’s Spring Festival gala; but they may be mollified by plans to release the fantasy epic ‘The Monkey King 2’ in 100 cities in 30 countries on or around 8 February; amidst the many festivities for the lunar new year, monkey-themed designs are found on stamps to commemorative coins, fashion and handicrafts; it is also the start of spring in the P R of China and there’s a lot to learn; folk artists are making traditional paper-cut monkeys to celebrate the new year (red paper, always red) as the paper cuts symbolise best wishes for the new year; figurines made out of dough of popular Chinese opera characters have been made to welcome the New Year; and Chinese ink painting masters have made monkey portraits in techniques that use few colors (black, yellow, and a bit of red) in a calligraphic manner; and if you are one of the 100,000 waiting for your train at the Guangzhou railway station, let’s hope you’re on your way home in time for the many new year activities. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey.
Ten years of a rural employment guarantee programme in India is well worth marking for the transformations it has brought about in rural districts and urban towns both, for the two kinds of Indias are so closely interlinked. The ten year mark has been surrounded by opportunistic political posturing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and by churlish accusations from the Indian National Congress (or Congress party, now in the opposition).
When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came about (it is now prefixed by MG, which is Mahatma Gandhi) ten years ago, it was only the newest in a long line of rural poverty alleviation programmes whose beginnings stretch past the Integrated Rural Development Programme (still a touchstone during the Ninth Five Year Plan) whose early period dates from the 1970s as a more coherent manifestation of the ‘Food For Work’ programme. Democratic decentralisation, which is casually dropped into central government communications nowadays as if it was invented only last week, was explained at length as early as the Sixth Five Year Plan. And in the Fourth Five Year Plan, in the guidance section it was stated that measures were needed for “widening opportunities of productive work and employment to the common man and particularly the less privileged sections of society” which “have to be thought out in a number of different contexts and coordinated in to effective, integrated programmes”.
This is only the barest glimpse of the historical precursors to the MGNREGA. The size of our rural population in the decade of the 2010s transforms any national (central government) programme into a study of gigantism over a number of dimensions, and so it is with the (MG)NREGA whose procedural demands for organising information over time and place became a discipline by itself, leading to the creation of a management information system whose levels of detail are probably unmatched anywhere in the world.
For its administrators, every week that the MGNREGA delivers money to households in a hamlet for work sanctioned by that small panchayat is one more successful week. There have over this last decade been considerably more successful weeks than unsuccessful ones. This has happened not because of politicians of whichever party of persuasion, but because of the decision made by many households to participate in the shape that NREGA (and later MGNREGA) took in their particular village. The politicians, like the parties they belong to, are incidental and transitory. At this stage of the programme’s life, it is to be hoped that it continues to run as a participatory pillar of the economy of Bharat, and assimilates in the years to come new concerns from the domains of organic (or zero budget) agriculture, sustainable development and ecological conservation.
At this stage the commentaries look back at the last year or perhaps two of the programme. “It is unclear, however, what the present NDA government thinks about the performance of the scheme,” commented the periodical Down To Earth. “Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called MGNREGA a ‘monument of failure’. Now, the rural development ministry has termed it as ‘a cause of national pride’.” The magazine went on to add that MGNREGA “started losing steam when wages were kept pending, leading to the liability being carried forward to the following year”.
“What is relatively less known is the impact of MGNREGA on several other aspects of the rural economy, such as wages, agricultural productivity and gender empowerment,” a commentary in the financial daily Mint has pointed out. “While most critics lament the quality of assets created under MGNREGA, there is now increasing evidence based on rigorous studies, which suggest that not only has the asset quality been better than comparable government programmes, they are also used more by the community.”
The finance minister has been quoted by the daily Indian Express as follows: “A kind of indifference towards it (MGNREGA) was growing by 2013-14, when the scheme entered its seventh and eighth years. When there was a change of government in 2014-15, there was talk on whether the scheme will be discontinued, or its fund allocation curtailed,” Minister Arun Jaitley is reported to have said at the MGNREGA ‘Sammelan’ in New Delhi. “The new government [the BJP] not only took forward the scheme but also increased its fund.”
In a Press Information Bureau release, the Minister for Rural Development, Birender Singh, said that 2015-16 has seen a revival of the MGNREGA programme. He also said that more than 64% of total expenditure was on agriculture and allied activities and 57% of all workers were women (well above the statutory requirement of 33%), and that among the measures responsible for the “revival of MGNREGA are the timely release of funds to states to provide work on demand, an electronic fund management system, consistent coordination between banks and post offices besides monitoring of pendency of payments”.
So far so good. What MGNREGA administrators need to mind now is for managerial technology and methods to not get ahead (or around) the objectives of the programme because these tend to keep the poor and vulnerable out instead of the other way around. The evaluations and studies on NREGA – and there have been a number of good ones – have shown that the more new financial and administrative measures there are, the greater the decline in participation in the programme. Administrative complexity also provides fodder to those, like this pompous commentator, who try to find in data ‘evidence’ that NREGA does “not help the poor”.
The MGNREGA’s usefulness and relevance is not only about creating employment when it is needed and its generally positive impact on wages. For all its shortcomings the MGNREGA programme has also helped revitalise the need to understand labour dynamics in rural areas particularly as it pertains to agriculture and cultivation. At a time when the flashier sections of the modern economy have lost their shine (if ever there was a shine) and when the need for panchayat-led, village-centric development that is self-reliant in deed and spirit is growing in Bharat, a programme like the MGNREGA has all the potential to serve the country well for another generation.