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GM and its public sector servants in India

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[Continued from part one.]

The facade of sophisticated science carries with it an appeal to the technocrats within our central government and major ministries, and to those in industry circles, with the apparently boundless production and yield vistas of biotechnology seeming to complement our successes in space applications, in information technology, in nuclear power and complementing the vision of GDP growth.

Framed by such science, the messages delivered by the biotech MNC negotiators and their compradors in local industry appear to be able to help us fulfil the most pressing national agendas: ensure that food production keeps pace with the needs of a growing and more demanding population, provide more crop per drop, deliver substantially higher yield per acre, certified and high-performing seeds will give farmers twice their income, consumers will benefit from standardised produce at low rates, crops will perform even in more arid conditions, the use of inputs will decrease, and the litany of promised marvels goes on.

Yet it is an all-round ignorance that has allowed such messages to take root and allowed their messengers to thrive in a country that has, in its National Gene Bank over 157,000 accessions of cereals (including 95,000 of paddy and 40,000 of wheat), over 56,000 accessions of millets (the true pearls of our semi-arid zones), over 58,000 accessions (an accession is a location-specific variety of a crop species) of pulses, over 57,000 of oilseeds (more than 10,000 of mustard), and over 25,000 of vegetables.

And even so the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reminds us that while the number of cultivated plant species is “relatively small and seemingly insignificant”, nature in India has evolved an extraordinary genetic diversity in crop plants and their wild relatives which is responsible for every agro-ecological sub-region, and every climatic variation and soil type that may be found in such a sub-region, being well supplied with food.

With such a cornucopia, every single ‘framed by great science’ claim about a GM crop made by the biotech MNCs must fall immediately flat because we possess the crop diversity that can already deliver it. Without the crippling monopolies that underlie the science claim, for these monopolies and licensing traps are what not only drove desi cotton out when Bt cotton was introduced but it did so while destroying farming households.

Without the deadly risk of risk of genetic contamination and genetic pollution of a native crop (such as, GM mustard’s risk to the many varieties of native ‘sarson’). Without the flooding of soil with a poison, glufosinate, that is the herbicide Bayer-Monsanto will force the sale of together with its GM seed (‘Basta’ is Bayer’s herbicide that is analogous to Monsanto’s fatal Glyphosate, which is carcinogenic to humans and destroys other plant life – our farmers routinely intercrop up to three crop species, for example mustard with chana and wheat, as doing so stabilises income).

Whereas the veil of ignorance is slowly lifting, the immediate questions that should be asked by food grower and consumer alike – how safe is it for plants, soil, humans, animals, pollinating insects and birds? what are the intended consequences? what unintended consequences are being studied? – are still uncommon when the subject is crop and food. This is what has formed an ethical and social vacuum around food, which has been cunningly exploited by the biotech MNCs and indeed which India’s retail, processed and packaged foods industry have profited from too.

When in October 2016 our National Academy of Agricultural Sciences shamefully and brazenly assured the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on the safety of GM mustard, it did so specifically “To allay the general public concerns”. What followed was outright lies, such as “herbicide is used in the process only in hybrid production plot”, “The normal activity of bees is not affected”, “GE Mustard provides yield advantage”, “no adverse effect on environment or human and animal health”. None of these statements was based on study.

India grows food enough to feed its population ten years hence. What affects such security – crop choices made at the level of a tehsil and balancing the demands on land in our 60 agro-ecological sub-zones and 94 river sub-basins – is still influenced by political position, the grip of the agricultural ‘inputs’ industry on farmers, economic pressures at the household level, and the seasonal cycle. In dealing with these influences, ethics, safety and social considerations are rarely if ever in the foreground. Yet India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose Article 17 requires countries to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Neither the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the case of GM mustard, nor the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology (whose Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council in a 2016 report saw great promise in genetic engineering for India), the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, with its 64 specialised institutions, 15 national research centres, 13 directorates, six national bureaux and four deemed universities), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have mentioned ethics, consumer and environment safety, or social considerations when cheering GM.

This group of agencies and institutions which too often takes its cue from the west, particularly the USA (which has since the 1950s dangled visiting professorships and research partnerships before the dazzled eyes of our scientific community) may find it instructive to note that caution is expressed even by the proponents of genetic engineering technologies in the country that so inspires them. In 2016 a report on ‘Past Experience and Future Prospects’ by the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the USA, recognised that the public is sceptical about GE crops “because of concerns that many experiments and results have been conducted or influenced by the industries that are profiting from these crops” and recommended that “ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies”.

Practices and regulations need to be informed by accurate scientific information, but recent history makes clear that what is held up as unassailable ‘science’ is unfortunately rarely untainted by interests for whom neither environment nor human health matter.

[This is the second part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part one is here.]

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How GM ‘science’ misled India

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For the last decade, the reckoning of what agriculture is to India has been based on three kinds of measures. The one that has always taken precedence is the physical output. Whether or not in a crop year the country has produced about 100 million tonnes (mt) of rice, 90 mt of wheat, 40 mt of other cereals (labelled since the colonial era as ‘coarse’ although they are anything but, and these include ragi, jowar, bajra and maize), 20 mt of pulses, 30 mt of oilseeds, and that mountain of biomass we call sugarcane, about 350 mt, therewith about 35 million bales of cotton, and about 12 million bales of jute and mesta.

The second measure is that of the macro-economic interpretation of these enormous aggregates. This is described in terms of gross value added in the agriculture (and allied) sector, the contribution of this sector to the country’s gross domestic product, gross capital formation in the sector, the budgetary outlays and expenditures both central and state for the sector, public and private investment in the sector. These drab equations are of no use whatsoever to the kisans of our country but are the only dialect that the financial, business, trading and commodity industries take primary note of, both in India and outside, and so these ratios are scrutinised at the start and end of every sowing season for every major crop.

The third measure has to do mostly with the materials, which when applied by cultivating households (156 million rural households, of which 90 million are considered to be agricultural only) to the 138 million farm holdings that they till and nurture, maintains the second measure and delivers the first. This third measure consists of labour and loans, the costs and prices of what are called ‘inputs’ by which is meant commercial seed, fertiliser, pesticide, fuel, the use of machinery, and labour. It also includes the credit advanced to the farming households, the alacrity and good use to which this credit is put, insurance, and the myriad fees and payments that accompany the transformation of a kisan’s crop to assessed and assayed produce in a mandi.

It is the distilling of these three kinds of measures into what is now well known as ‘food security’ that has occupied central planners and with them the Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Consumer Affairs (which runs the public distribution system), and Food Processing Industries. More recently, two new concerns have emerged. One is called ‘nutritional security’ and while it evokes in the consumer the idea which three generations ago was known as ‘the balanced diet’, has grave implications on the manner in which food crops are treated. The other is climate change and how it threatens to affect the average yields of our major food crops, pushing them down and bearing the potential to turn the fertile river valley of today into a barren tract tomorrow.

These two new concerns, when added to the ever-present consideration about whether India has enough foodgrain to feed our 257 million (in 2017) households, are today exploited to give currency to the technological school of industrial agriculture and its most menacing method: genetically modified (GM) or engineered seed and crop. The proprietors of this method are foreign, overwhelmingly from USA and western Europe and the western bio-technology (or ‘synbio’, as it is now being called, a truncation of synthetic biology, which includes not only GM and GE but also the far more sinister gene editing and gene ‘drives’) network is held in place by the biggest seed- and biotech conglomerates, supported by research laboratories (both academic and private) that are amply funded through their governments, attended to by a constellation of high-technology equipment suppliers, endorsed by intergovernmental groupings such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), taken in partnership by the world’s largest commodities trading firms and grain dealers (and their associates in the commodities trading exchanges), and amplified by quasi-professional voices booming from hundreds of trade and news media outlets.

This huge and deep network generates scientific and faux-scientific material in lorry-loads, all of it being designed to bolster the claims of the GM seed and crop corporations and flood the academic journals (far too many of which are directly supported by or entirely compromised to the biotech MNCs) with ‘peer-reviewed evidence’. When the ‘science’ cudgel is wielded by the MNCs through their negotiators in New Delhi and state capitals, a twin cudgel is raised by the MNC’s host country: that of trade, trade tariffs, trade sanctions and trade barriers. This we have witnessed every time that India and the group of ‘developing nations’ attends a council, working group, or dispute settlement meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The scientific veneer is sophisticated and well broadcast to the public (and to our industry), but the threats are medieval in manner and are scarcely reported.

[This is the first part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part two is here.]

Written by makanaka

July 21, 2017 at 18:53

In Europe, a vote for the right to keep GM out

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The 'no' vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

The ‘no’ vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Members of the European Parliament have defeated a European Commission proposal to prevent member states from banning genetically modified crops on health and/or environmental grounds. The result of this vote means that national bans on GM crops, for environmental or health reasons, are allowed even if the EU approves genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation.

The European Food and Safety Authority had approved GM for use in the EU, but a number of countries opposed to GM (like France) demanded the right to block crops under a principle known as ‘subsidiarity’, or devolution to individual countries.

The Greens/European Free Alliance has said that the vote by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) strengthens the grounds on which EU member countries could opt out from GMO authorisations under the proposed new system.

In a statement the Greens/European Free Alliance said: “No must mean no: countries wanting to opt out of GM authorisations must have a totally legally watertight framework for doing so. MEPs have also voted for the inclusion of mandatory measures to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops, with the myriad of issues this raises. The committee also rejected a proposal from EU governments, which would have obliged member states to directly request that corporations take them out of the scope of their GMO applications, before being allowed to opt out.”

However, the Greens are still very concerned that the new opt out scheme is a slippery slope for easing EU GMO authorisations and does not fundamentally change the flawed EU approval process in itself. Organisations, scientists, academics, political fronts and citizens’ alliances who do not want GM crop or food in their regions and countries nonetheless see an urgent need to reform the EU’s GMO authorisation process. On 03 November 2014, signatures from more than 160,000 European citizens were presented to the vice-chair of the Environment Committee calling on him to close these loopholes.

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto's GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto’s GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Currently, authorisations proceed in spite of flawed risk assessments and the consistent opposition of a majority of EU member states in Council and, importantly, a clear majority of EU citizens. They have warned against a trade-off of easier EU authorisations against easier national bans. For the EU, the next step must be an EU-wide total ban and total rejection of GM crop, food, seed and technology in all its forms, otherwise the new proposal for EU GMO approvals is a Trojan horse which risks finally opening the door to GMOs despite citizens’ opposition, and which will keep open the route for GM/biotech companies to appeal against such bans (a route that European Greens and the many groups that have rejected GM want to shut once and for all).

Such a next step – which is the logical and moral next step for the European Parliament to take – is necessary to overturn completely the current arrangement which treats biotech companies and corporations at the same level as governments. Under the arrangement that existed till now (the ramifications of this week’s ‘no’ vote must still be examined) an EU member country which does not want GMO to be grown on its territory must request the biotech company (through the European Commission) that its territory be excluded from the geographical scope of the EU authorisation. Only if the country has applied for a ‘territorial exemption’ and been refused by the company is the country allowed to then implement a ban on GMO on its territory.

How utterly contemptuous of a country’s sovereign rights this arrangement was, and how it found its way into procedure illustrates dramatically the power and influence that the GM and biotech industry has come to wield in the EU – the decision of the geographical scope of an EU authorisation gave more weight to biotech/GM companies than to governments!

In the debate about GM crops, the argument that the biotech industry and their supporters always fall back on is that whether we like it or not, we are going to need them to feed the world. Genetic modification has, they assure us, the potential to produce crops with all sorts of wonderful traits: tolerance of drought, cold, salinity and flooding, resistance to insect pests, extra nutritional value, and more.

“But for the last 20 years, GM has singularly failed to convert that potential into reality,” the Institute for Science in Society has explained. “Almost all the GM crops grown have been modified to have one of two traits: tolerance of glyphosate-based herbicides and the ability to produce a Bt-toxin that can kill corn- and cotton pests. In the meantime, conventional breeding, often employing modern techniques such as marker-assisted breeding, has continued to deliver the goods. If our real goal is to feed the world, we should be taking resources away from GM and devoting them to other agricultural research that is less glamorous-sounding but more effective.”

Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public

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RG_GMO_quote_20140603Feckless EU politicians – the shallow brats of Brussels – have struck a deal between themselves and the agri-bio-technology corporations to sweep away the obstacles to genetically engineered crops in the European Union. This group, greasy fingers firmly in each other’s pocketbooks, want to allow (under limited circumstances, they say) individual EU member states to prohibit the growing of GMO crops on their territory, but to boost GMO crops in the EU overall.

The so-called “compromise pact” is likely to make it easier for the manufacturers of GM crops to win approval while allowing some countries to ban them. Not surprisingly, as the British government slavishly follows the White House line on every matter (except fish-and-chips), the deal was welcomed by Britain, which in a typically obsequious statement said it hoped the pact would allow for more rapid approval of GM crops in the EU.

Oddly, France’s agriculture ministry welcomed the “good news”, which coincided with a decision by the French constitutional court to uphold a domestic ban on GM maize. Just as oddly, Germany praised the deal for allowing “opt-outs”, saying it opened the way for a formal ban in Germany.

RG_EU_GMO_pact_201405This pact came following what is called an indicative vote of EU Member State representatives – taken in a closed meeting (obviously). A formal vote will take place at a meeting of Environment Ministers on June 12 and if agreed – very likely it will be – it will then go to the European Parliament for approval.

That approval (or not) may come in an environment riven by weaknesses in the EU’s GMO assessment and approval system and pro-GMO bias at the centre of the European Food safety Agency (EFSA). There has also been chronic failure to implement an EU-wide and rigorous co-existence and liability regime – to date the EU has only produced non-legally binding recommendations for co-existence (of GM and non-GM crops).

The significance of all this is that it breaks the political stalemate that has largely prevented GMO crops from being grown in the EU. The proposal is based on the deceit that both pro- and anti-GMO countries can have want they want, and the unity of the EU Single Market can remain intact.

This is nonsense because under the proposed terms:

* Before banning an approved GMO crop EU Member States have to seek agreement from GMO companies to having their product excluded from a specific territory.
* If the companies refuse, Member States can proceed with the ban but only on grounds that to do not go against the EU approval and assessment of health and environmental risk – which means that if the EU-wide assessment gives the nod to GM, the country must concur despite its own assessment and public opinion.
* EU Member States nevertheless still have specific grounds for a ban which can include aspects like protection of nature reserves, areas vulnerable to contamination, and socio-economic impacts. So EU ‘unity’ can be overridden, provided smaller and weaker EU members states assert that right.

Monsanto drops GM crop plans in Europe

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'Monsanocchio', by Raymond Burki, a Swiss cartoonist whose works are published in the Lausanne daily 24 heures. Courtesy: Presseurop

‘Monsanocchio’, by Raymond Burki, a Swiss cartoonist whose works are published in the Lausanne daily 24 heures. Courtesy: Presseurop

The signs have been gaining substance over the last two years. In western Europe (Britain excluded), citizens and independent researchers have demanded and end to GM food products. The support given to the seed-biotech-fertiliser conglomerates of the USA and Europe, by their governments has been well met by organised consumer awareness and resistance. It is no wonder then that these cartels have shifted the use of their tactics to Asia, where political establishments can be more easily influenced and where consumer awareness about the dreadful dangers of GM is generally lower than in western Europe.

Europe’s press is reporting that Monsanto, the fertiliser and biotechnology company, is withdrawing all permits requested to the European Commission to grow genetically modified corn, soy and sugar beet because it does not see “a commercial outlook” for these products (that’s what the public relations scoundrels call what we know and practice as informed consumer awareness).

German daily Die Welt reported that only a request to grow genetically modified corn (of the MON810 type) will be renewed. For the moment, this type of corn is the only genetically modified organism commercially cultivated in Europe, said Die Welt. While MON810 corn type is admitted into the EU, several countries including France, Germany and Italy have banned it at the national level, following citizen initiatives. Last year, German chemical firm BASF threw in the towel and relocated its biotechnology centre to the USA because genetic engineering is so strongly contested in Europe.

Monsanto has loudly insisted that its genetically modified products, including maize MON810, which is authorised in Europe, are safe for humans. It has an army of compromised ‘scientists’ on its payroll in every single country where it wants to push its GM products, and using its public relations agents has infiltrated media in every country that it sees as a market. But the evidence that GM is dangerous for humans and animals, for insects and plants alike grows by the day. A study conducted on rats for two years by a team of French researchers on Monsanto NK 603 corn revealed an abnormally high tumour and death rate – Monsanto’s own in-house studies, pushed out as counter-evidence by mercenary accomplices, were conducted for no more than three months!

Roadside shacks of people whose land has been taken over for soy fields in Alto Parana, Paraguay, which is among the South American countries with the most unequal land distribution. Paraguay has seen this situation escalate to the point where today, 2% of owners control 85% of the farmland. The regional situation is worse when one considers that the neighbouring countries – Brazil especially but also Argentina – are also experiencing land concentration for transgenic soybeans. Photo: Grain / Glyn Thomas / FoE

Roadside shacks of people whose land has been taken over for soy fields in Alto Parana, Paraguay, which is among the South American countries with the most unequal land distribution. Paraguay has seen this situation escalate to the point where today, 2% of owners control 85% of the farmland. The regional situation is worse when one considers that the neighbouring countries – Brazil especially but also Argentina – are also experiencing land concentration for transgenic soybeans. Photo: Grain / Glyn Thomas / FoE

Greenpeace noted the company will also seek to continue sales of its controversial MON810 maize, which was already approved in Europe and is the last remaining GM crop grown there. “The EU-wide authorisation for the cultivation of MON810 is expiring at the end of a ten-year period and the safety of the crop is due to be reassessed. The company is permitted to continue to use MON810 in Europe until the European Commission announces its decision,” stated Greenpeace.

The GM Freeze campaign welcomed Monsanto’s announcement that it is withdrawing pending applications to cultivate GM crops in the European Union but said this is not the end of Europe’s GM story. GM Freeze pointed out that Monsanto’s GM crops will still be imported into the EU, primarily for use in animal feed and biofuels, so the damage to ecosystems and human health caused by GM will continue elsewhere. The lack of labels on meat, eggs, dairy products and fish produced using GM feed means that Europe’s reliance on GM is hidden from consumers so they cannot easily avoid buying GM-fed products. Food companies should meet the clear demand for entirely non-GM foods by labelling those produced without GM, as is done successfully by many companies in Germany, Austria and France.

In tiresomely typical contrast, the government of the United Kingdom is to push the European Union to ease restrictions limiting the use of GM crops in the human food chain, reported The Independent. Britain’s Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is next week due to announce a UK government drive to increase Britain’s cultivation of GM foods! The newspaper said Britain’s ministers are hopeful of building support in Brussels for a change of heart on GM, with Germany seen as a key swing voter. The government of Britain’s craven attempts to relax the rules will face opposition from countries like Poland which in April became the eighth EU member state to ban the cultivation of GM crops.

Forgetting their ‘commitments’ to get GM out of their supply chains, big British food retailers – Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco – have gone in the opposite direction. Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have joined Monsanto, Cargill and Nestle on the absurd Roundtable on Responsible Soy, a group that has been condemned by organisations around the world as a greenwash of existing bad practice in industrial soya monoculture. The Roundtable ‘certifies’ (judge and jury) GM soya as “responsible” despite growing evidence of adverse health, environmental and socioeconomic impacts in producer countries. Tesco is now backing GM soya production in South America, where it is grown in huge monocultures sprayed frequently with Roundup to the detriment of people and ecosystems there.

Tiffin: GM in China, land in Colombia, soya republic, the dodgiest food prize

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1) China is the world’s biggest grain producer and maintains a standing policy that forbids growing GM grain. But China does allow imports of certain GM products. In 2012, China imported over 58 million tons of soybeans – mostly genetically modified. Public opinions on GM crops in China are polarised, with a great number of people holding suspicions toward GM products.
Rao Yi, a professor and dean of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, said that while some GM-related concerns still need to be discussed, there are also rumors that need to be dispelled. Domestically-grown soybean is scarce in China, as China’s imports of GM soybeans rocketed to 58 million tons from less than 3 million tons in 1997. Many farmers have abandoned soybeans for other crops, as imported soybeans are cheaper. GM technology is the future of agriculture, said Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist and vocal supporter of GM technology, adding that it will be harder for China “to catch up with the USA” if China does not recognize this fact.

2) Cargill, the world’s largest food company, has been secretly amassing land from small farmers in eastern Colombia, despite a law prohibiting the practice. When the two countries signed a free trade agreement last year, Cargill emerged as the owner of 52,574 hectares where it grows corn and soybeans. The small farms in the isolated high plains of Vichada department in eastern Colombia were given to poor peasants in the 1990s under a scheme to convert ‘wasteland’ in an area that had become a stronghold for the lucrative cocaine trade. Colombian law prohibits any one person or entity from owning more than one “agricultural family unit” of this land in an effort to diversify land ownership in a country where most land is owned by a small wealthy minority.

3) The profound impacts of the agribusiness model know no borders between rural and urban. In rural areas and outer suburbs they are measured in terms of agrotoxin poisoning, displaced farmers (who swell the ranks of the urban poor), ruined regional economies, correspondingly high urban food prices, and contamination of the food supply. Ultimately, what we are looking at is a social and environmental catastrophe settling like a plague over the entire region. Wherever you live, you cannot ignore it.
The handful of people and companies responsible for this chain of destruction have names: Monsanto and a few other biotech corporations (Syngenta, Bayer) leading the pack; large landowners and planting pools that control millions of hectares (Los Grobo, CRESUD, El Tejar, Maggi, and others); and the cartels that move grain around the world (Cargill, ADM, and Bunge). Not to mention the governments of each of these countries and their enthusiastic support for this model. To these should be added the many auxiliary businesses providing services, machinery, spraying, and inputs that have enriched themselves as a result of the model.
To put some numbers on the phenomenon, there are currently over 46 million ha of GE soy monoculture in the region. These are sprayed with over 600 million litres of glyphosate and are causing deforestation at a rate of at least 500,000 ha per year.

4) The 2013 World Food Prize has gone to three chemical company executives, including Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, responsible for development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yet, GMO seeds have not been designed to meet the Prize’s mandate and function in ways that actually impede progress toward the stated goals of the World Food Prize.
Almost twenty years after commercialisation of the first GMO seeds, by far the most widely used are not engineered to enhance nutrient content, but to produce a specific pesticide or to resist a proprietary herbicide, or a combination of these traits. Even in reducing weeds, the technology is failing, for it has led to herbicide-resistant “super weeds” now appearing on nearly half of American farms.
This award not only communicates a false connection between GMOs and solutions to hunger and agricultural degradation, but it also diverts attention from truly “nutritious and sustainable” agroecological approaches already proving effective, especially in the face of extreme weather. Developed and controlled by a handful of companies, genetically engineered seeds further the concentration of power and the extreme inequality at the root of this crisis of food inaccessibility.

Valuing the food we lose and throw away

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Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to data released by FAO. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages – harvesting, processing and distribution – while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. Graphic: from FAO images

Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to data released by FAO. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages – harvesting, processing and distribution – while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. Graphic: from FAO images

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has begun a campaign to encourage simple actions by consumers and food retailers to cut the 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted every year.

“In industrialised regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption,” the Director-General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, said. “This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million people hungry in the world.”

Indeed this is the point. The industrialised agriculture and the attendant food retail and sales system is responsible – directly – for encouraging such consumer behaviour. If the FAO and UNEP are determined to follow the logic of their campaign, they must stop encouraging less industrialised countries to adopt the same systems of food production and sale.

They must also stop encouraging the genetically-modified crop industry from claiming that it is only GM seed that can feed growing populations. The answers to current hunger lie not in the ver greater use of technology and industry but in being far more responsible with growing food organically, eating it locally, using the small wastes in local nutrient cycles such as composting, and educating food consumers about how to do their bit.

The FAO head, da Silva, had added that the campaign can “help food producers to reduce losses through better harvesting, processing, storage, transport and marketing methods…” which is rather retrograde. It is the ‘betterness’ of harvesting, processing, storage, transport and marketing that has contributed greatly to this situation that the FAO and UNEP find intolerable.

The campaign itself has a wide variety of facts and advice and is well worth following.

Written by makanaka

January 22, 2013 at 20:48

For whom do the FAO and its director-general work?

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A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast? [This is an extract from the full article at Monthly Review’s MRZine.]

FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

The FAO 'real' food price index. What will a private sector 'political commitment' do to these trends?

The FAO ‘real’ food price index. What will a private sector ‘political commitment’ do to these trends?

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

mrzine_logo“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”[You can read the rest on MRZine.]

Written by makanaka

December 5, 2012 at 16:35

The hidden hunger that shames India

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Infochange India’s special hunger and malnutrition issue of its journal Agenda, 2012 July

Agenda, which is the journal of the excellent development news website Infochange India, has issued its new number, themed on hunger and malnutrition. The articles in this collection are a mix of reportage from amongst the poorest rural regions of India, insightful explorations into the nature of nutrition and the change in food systems, and critical views on food and agriculture policy in India.

“Forty-eight per cent of all children under 5 in India are stunted for their age – the impact of longstanding hunger which, in turn, is a result of sheer poverty, marginalisation and a government that clearly does not care,” explained the introductory essay by the issue editor. “Twenty per cent of children are wasted – they are stick-thin because a drought or other crisis has forced the family to further cut back on food. And an outrageous 43% of all children under 5 are underweight – a composite index of chronic or acute deprivation.”

Children in India are especially severely affected. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme is supposed to address this extreme deprivation by providing supplementary food, rations and growth monitoring through community-level anganwadis for children under the age of six years. However, though a whopping 70% of children in India between six months and five years are anaemic, 74% of children under 6 do not receive any supplementary food from the anganwadi in their region. Convert those numbers into more than 100 million children who don’t get enough to eat.

I am privileged to have contributed three articles to this issue of Agenda. They are:

What individuals spend on a monthly food basket – Though the amounts spent on cereals are largely the same, there are clear differences between the spending of rural and urban consumers on milk and milk products, sugar and oil. Urban consumers spend 104% more than rural consumers on beverages, refreshments and processed foods.

Approaches to malnutrition and the writ of a compartmented government – The absence of inter-sectoral programmes covering the entire life-cycle of women and children in particular and requiring coordination between different ministries such as women and child development, health and family welfare, agriculture, food processing and human resource development, is the reason why, at the start of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan period (2012-17), the fundamental causes of malnutrition in India remain as they were during the First Five-Year Plan.

Micro, bio and packaged — how India’s nutrition mix is being reshaped – Crop and food multinationals, ably assisted by government, are using the ‘reduce hidden hunger’ platform to push hunger-busting technologies that best suit them — including biofortification of crops, the use of supplementation, and of commercial fortification of prepared and processed foods.