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FAO in the dock

Published : Mar 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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LAST year, 650 civil society organisations and 800 individuals from over 80 countries sent an open letter to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), strongly condemning its annual State of Food and Agriculture report, "Agricultural biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor", as highly biased against the poor, the environment and food production. The letter accused the report of ignoring available evidence of the adverse impact of genetically modified (GM) crops.

The letter acknowledged that the FAO report had mentioned that the development of GM crops was dominated by corporations, but blamed the organisation for not mentioning the fact that seeds of only one company - Monsanto - covered over 90 per cent of the total world area under transgenic seeds.

The letter states: "We believe that FAO has broken its commitment to civil society and peasants' organisations... . The report turns FAO away from food sovereignty and the real needs of the world's farmers, and is a stab in the back to the farmers and the rural poor FAO is meant to support."

The authors of the letter are sure that genetically engineered crops do not help fight hunger in the world. Says the letter: "History demonstrates that structural changes in access to land, food, and political power - combined with robust, ecological technologies via farmer-led research - reduce hunger and poverty. The `gene revolution' promises to take us in the opposite direction."

The letter says: "The report, sadly, raises serious questions about the independence and intellectual integrity of an important United Nations agency. This amounts to FAO's support for corporate biopiracy since the genetic resources that corporations seek to patent result from the collective breeding work of farmers over thousands of years."

The Director of FAO, Jacques Diouf, responded thus: "While this report emphasises biotechnology, it is not meant to represent all components of FAO's broad mandate and commitment to promote agricultural development and alleviate hunger." He stressed the importance for developing countries to "[enhance] their scientific capacity and master the necessary expertise and techniques so that they can understand the implications and make independent choices in order to reach an international consensus on issues that concern all of humanity".

The civil society organisations, however, intend to reconsider their relationship with FAO.

In the early 1960s, most nations were self-sufficient in food; now only a few are. In the period 1950-1984, the introduction of high-yielding crops and technology-intensive farming ushered in the Green Revolution, leading to increased crop production. World grain output expanded by a factor of 2.6 in this period. Except for parts of Africa, food production exceeded population growth throughout the world. But now, the per capita grain production has slowed and even appears to be declining.

In the mid-1970s, a major effort was made to turn food production into a corporate business by policy-makers in the United States after multinational companies discovered the opportunity offered by the hunger, misery and starvation in developing countries.

In 1974, the U.N. General Assembly convened its first "political" meet on hunger - as the World Food Conference came to be known. The U.S. delegation stressed that the real solution to world hunger lay in agribusiness. "Industry would grow the food and get it to market for everyone," it said. This marked a turning point for the agribusiness industry, which surged ahead.

With corporate influence growing, last year FAO released its report, which paints a positive picture of GM crops and recommends that more resources be committed for the development of GM technologies for developing countries. Not surprisingly, the report has been received enthusiastically by the industry, which is pushing the GM technology, projecting it as the panacea for world hunger.

The main feature of the report is its analysis of farmers' experiences with Bt cotton around the world. FAO thinks that resource-poor smallholders in developing countries can gain significant benefits from the adoption of transgenic crops in terms of higher and more stable effective yields, lower pesticide costs and reduced health risks from chemical pesticide exposure.

But the FAO report ignores what is actually happening on the ground. Two studies on Bt cotton in India and West Africa belie the claim of the success of GM cotton. The Indian study, conducted by the Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) Coalition in Defence of Diversity, provides evidence of Bt cotton's failure on the field and FAO's inability to defend the interests of small farmers. For the report "Did Bt cotton fail A.P. again in 2003-2004?", the A.P. Coalition surveyed 164 small Bt cotton farmers from three districts of the State in the 2003-04 season. It found that while Bt cotton marginally reduced pesticide use and increased yields, the overall profits for farmers growing Bt cotton were 9 per cent lower.

This directly contradicts the results of a study put out by a marketing agency on behalf of Monsanto, which claims that farmer profits increased by 92 per cent. But the FAO report does not even mention the results of the studies, leave alone trying to put at rest the confusion that is bound to occur among the farmers.

But, the FAO report says: "The FAO recognises that genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people. There are already examples where genetic engineering is helping to reduce the transmission of human and animal diseases through new vaccines. Rice has been genetically engineered to contain pro-vitamin A (beta carotene) and iron, which could improve the health of many low-income communities."

The report also professes awareness of the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology - the effects on human and animal health and the environment. The report adds that caution must be exercised to reduce the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another, which could result in unexpected allergic reactions.

But, according to the open letter, genetic contamination is polluting the very heart of the world's centres of crop diversity. FAO brushes this aside with hardly a comment.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 11, 2005.)

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