The controversial Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA) was officially launched yesterday at the U.N. Climate Summit. The announcement came in the wake of rising criticism from civil society, including IATP, about the intentionally vague term “climate smart” versus the more established science of agroecology, as well as the corporate-led participation of GACSA.
The agriculture session of the summit, where GACSA was announced, took place late in the day, after countries had made their declarations and commitments. Earlier, President Obama began by naming climate change the defining issue of today—above terrorism, instability, inequality and disease. “Deepening science says this once-distant threat has moved firmly into the present,” he said, adding that “we need to work together as a global community to attack this global threat before it’s too late.”
Unfortunately, the president’s support of “Climate Smart Agriculture”—the latest corporate spin on false solutions—only contradicted his urgency as he, like GACSA, failed to bring agroecology into the fold. He said that the U.S. has helped farmers around the world practice Climate Smart Agriculture by planting “more resilient crops”—referring to seeds genetically modified to be drought resistant.
The afternoon agriculture session of the U.N. Climate Summit attempted to put a bright shine on Climate Smart Agriculture and GACSA. The Dutch Prime Minister kicked things off by outlining the three “aspirational” outcomes of GACSA: 1.) sustainable and increased agricultural productivity and incomes; 2.) greater resilience of food systems and farm incomes; and 3.) reduced greenhouse gas emissions wherever possible. These outcomes are vague at best, and invitations for corporate agribusiness to push more yield-promoting genetically modified seeds and chemicals at worst.
Several African country government delegates expressed support of GACSA, including the representative from Niger who stated that investment in fertilizers could have helped minimize Africa’s suffering from drought in the past. The representative from the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions said that “indigenous knowledge and wisdom are no longer enough” and that new technologies are needed to adapt to climate change. These claims place power in the hands of the companies creating and selling agricultural technologies and fertilizers, including companies like Syngenta and Yara, who also signed on to GACSA.
Much of the 50-minute agriculture session was taken up by addresses from the CEOs of McDonald’s and Walmart, two of the signatories of GACSA. McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson began by stating that even though McDonald’s “only” sources 2 percent of the world’s beef, it pledges to source only verified sustainable beef by 2016. Thompson acknowledged that the beef industry does not have a current definition of sustainable, but that McDonald’s is working with Walmart and others to create such a definition. This essentially allows McDonald’s to create whatever definition it desires and market it as both sustainable and Climate Smart.
Walmart’s CEO, recognizing their position as the world’s largest grocer, announced its own strategy to create metrics for suppliers to assess water use, greenhouse gas emissions, yields and more. Not mentioned was the fact that they are the world’s largest grocer because of their low prices, including low wages for workers and low prices for farmers, which often come at the expense of important environmental and social safeguards.
Apart from a two-minute statement from Civil Society read by Sonali Bisht of the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education, which emphasized agroecology as the real solution to climate change impacts on agriculture, there was no mention of agroecology or agroecological initiatives in the agriculture session. Part of Bisht’s statement called out false solutions which claim to address climate change but are actually pushed for profit-making purposes—a direct jab at GACSA and its greenwashing of the words “Climate Smart” to serve its corporate members.
In his address, President Obama also asserted that this is the last generation with the power to stop climate change before it’s too late. This message was echoed by many world leaders, who voiced recognition that climate change is a massive environmental, economic, and social problem. Given the consensus of the gravity of the challenge we all face, corporate interests cannot be allowed to interfere with the real solutions we need.
On Monday, the Carbon Underground, Rodale Institute and Organic Consumers Association held a press conference featuring leading scientists to explain why cutting emissions alone won’t solve climate change, and how nurturing healthier soil is an essential part of the climate solution. Speakers included “Coach” Mark Smallwood, the Executive Director of the Rodale Institute; Dr. Kristine Nichols, Chief Scientist at the Rodale Institute; Dr. Richard Teague, Professor at Texas A&M; Andre Leu, President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM); Vandana Shiva, Founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy; Dena Hoff of La Via Campesina; and Tom Newmark, Co-Founder of the Carbon Underground.
The speakers had a powerful message to convey: we already have the tools to slow climate change. The metaphor used throughout the press conference was of a 400-pound man who visits a doctor hoping for advice on how to restore his health and the best solution the doctor offers is a diet plan that can slow the rate of weight gain. In this scenario, it’s obvious that the solution is not to slow the rate of weight gain, but to lose excess weight. The same applies to CO2 emissions: we not only need to slow the rate of emissions, but take CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is a task that regenerative organic agriculture (also called agroecology by many groups, including IATP) can achieve by building healthy soils to sequester carbon underground.
According to the speakers, if we converted all global cropland to regenerative organic management, we could sequester 40 percent of annual CO2 emissions. If we also converted all global pasture and rangelands to organic regenerative management, we could sequester 71 percent more annual CO2 emissions. This adds up to a possible sequestration of 111 percent of annual CO2 emissions by managing our croplands, rangelands, and pastures differently. Rodale’s white paper on the subject includes the full details.
The regenerative organic model includes practices such as cover crops, crop rotations, conservation tillage and incorporation of compost. Beyond sequestering carbon, this type of management increases soil water retention and nutrient levels, making land more resilient to the droughts and floods that will become increasingly common as the climate changes. In a side-by-side trial at the Rodale farm, organically managed non-GMO crops outperformed genetically modified drought-resistant crops by 18 percent to 23 percent. This means that a regenerative organic model also has the capacity to increase crop yields and food security.
The political hurdles to achieving such a paradigm shift in agricultural management were acknowledged by several speakers. Vandana Shiva called “a system that refuses to recognize data” the biggest obstacle to achieving widespread regenerative organic agriculture. This obstacle is especially clear as the UN Climate Summit is underway. The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, being launched in conjunction with the UN Climate Summit, is using the term “climate smart” to refer to false solutions, including the use of genetically modified seeds. This is likely to be a significant barrier to regenerative organic farming, considering that corporations such as Syngenta and Yara are at the climate smart table and stand to profit from perpetuating genetically modified and chemical-heavy farming.
We all have to do our part to contribute to the change we need. Over 100 NGOs signed a letter rejecting the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, La Via Campesina wrote a statement denouncing Climate Smart Agriculture, Action Aid authored an illuminating report on the confusion surrounding “Climate Smart Agriculture,” IATP’s Dr. M. Jahi Chappell organized a letter from scientists urging the FAO to use agroecology as the best pathway for achieving sustainable food production, and many farmers on the ground are already incorporating regenerative organic practices on their land.
Now is the time to continue spreading this message and pressuring the UN, Congress, and other decision making bodies to follow suit. In his address at the UN Climate Summit this morning, President Obama alluded to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” One of the best ways to combat the climate crisis is through agroecology and regenerative organic agriculture.
Posted September 23, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell
IATP, as a member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, is excited to join our partners and allies in congratulating the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) of Palestine and Community to Community/Comunidad a Comunidad, as co-winners of the 2014 Food Sovereignty Prize. Food sovereignty, which demands that the shape of food and agricultural systems must be designed by and responsive to the needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food, rather than by the demands of markets and corporations, is very much part of the values and objectives of IATP. It calls for a democratization and decentralization of food systems—two vital principles that UAWC and C2C are both striving for in their own work.
As the USFSA states in their press release announcing the winners:
Their stories of continuous struggle to defend the rights of their communities – farmers and fishers in the occupied Palestinian territories and migrant Mexican farm workers in Washington State, both seeking to produce their own food, on their own land, in their home communities – stand in stark contrast to the storylines coming from agribusiness: that technological changes to crops can meet human needs and resolve hunger.
Palestine has been under Israeli occupation for decades and this summer faced heightened pressure, including thousands killed and many more injured from bombings, destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, farms, and fishing boats, and hundreds of arrests without due process, and the continued building of settlements on Palestinian farmland. UAWC builds farmers cooperatives and seed banks, and supports women’s leadership, while continuing to seek its members’ human rights to food, land, and water. “This important prize inspires UAWC to carry on its work in defending Palestinian farmers' rights against the brutal Israeli violations, both through supporting small-scale farmers and fishermen toward their food sovereignty and rights to land and water, and also through coordination with local and international movements for social justice and human rights," said Khaled Hidan, General Director of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees in Palestine.
In Washington State, amid failed immigration policies that criminalize working families, Community to Community Development has supported and worked with immigrant farm workers to develop farm worker-owned cooperatives, organize a successful nutrition education project called Cocinas Sanas, and promote domestic fair trade in regional assemblies and meetings. Most recently, C2C has supported an emerging farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and organized a national boycott of Sakuma Farms, their employer, who withheld pay, provided poor housing, and has since retaliated against the workers. Familias Unidas por la Justicia recently won a settlement for wage theft and had a Superior Court Judge rule uphold their right to organize – but their fight is not over. “In honoring Community to Community, the USFSA honors indigenous farmworkers in the U.S. Displaced by NAFTA, these peasant farmers from Mexico are practicing a tradition of struggle for justice. Together, C2C and Familias Unidas are promoting food sovereignty in rural Washington State and challenging the corporate agricultural interests that are controlling our food system,” said Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director of Community to Community Development.
The Food Sovereignty Prize, founded in 2009, “spotlights grassroots activists working for a more democratic food system.” Honorees are groups that have raised public awareness, organized on-the-ground action, and/or developed and implemented programs and policies recognizing the importance of collective action in bringing about social change; who have built global linkages into their work, and prioritized the leadership of women, indigenous peoples, people of color, migrant workers and other food providers marginalized by the global food system.
As opposed to the World Food Prize, which honors individuals and emphasizes increased production through technology, the Food Sovereignty Prize “champions solutions coming from those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system. In honoring those who are taking back their food systems, the Food Sovereignty Prize affirms that nothing short of the true democratization of our food system will enable us to end hunger once and for all.”
The Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony, which I will be attending as a representative of IATP, will take place at the Iowa Historical Building in Des Moines, Iowa on the October 15, 2014. It will be refreshing to join groups focused on the key elements of providing sustainability and food security—scientifically validated factors like women’s rights, social change and social and economic justice—and not just on agricultural production: a factor that, without justice, means little for helping people rather than simply profits.
Posted September 21, 2014 by Tara Ritter
IATP's Tara Ritter is blogging from New York City as a participant of the People's Climate March.
At 400,000 participants, the People’s Climate March was at least four times larger than any other climate rally in history. Add that to 2,808 solidarity events in 166 countries, and you get an idea of the powerful worldwide call for climate action that happened today.
The lineup began hours before the march departed—people spanned tens of blocks along Central Park holding signs, playing music and rallying for their climate cause. Leading the march were people and groups at the frontlines of crisis, including indigenous people and environmental justice groups. Next came groups advocating for a better future, including labor, family and student groups. The solutions block came next, calling for renewable energy, food and water justice, and other environmental advocacy. Then anti-corporate groups calling out those responsible for the climate crisis. Scientists and interfaith groups followed. At the end of the march was the section called “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone”—a powerful contingent filled with neighborhood and community groups, the LGBTQ community, and representatives from cities, states and countries.
The march was scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m., with a moment of silence at 12:58 p.m., followed by as much noise as participants could make at 1:00 p.m. The march was so massive that by the time the moment of silence took place, nearly 1.5 hours after the frontlines began marching, the solutions block in the middle of the march hadn’t even begun to move. The wave of silence swept through the streets, lasting only several seconds, before people began blowing whistles, banging pots and pans, playing instruments and sounding the alarm for climate action.
At the end of the march, after people had been on their feet for hours, a block party featuring music, celebration and community began. The celebration was a stark contrast to the reality of climate change impacts that all participants were well aware of, but celebration is needed to sustain passion and motivation.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, agrees that the largest problem in the climate crisis is the financial power of the fossil fuel industry. He said, “We can’t match that money, so we have to work in the currency of movements—passion, spirit, creativity and bodies.” Here’s hoping that the enormous display of democracy in the streets today is reflected in the U.N. Climate Summit, the U.S. Congress and other institutions around the world.
Posted September 20, 2014 by Tara Ritter
IATP’s Tara Ritter is blogging from New York City as she attends the NYC Climate Convergence and the People's Climate March.
On the day before the People’s Climate March—what’s being billed as the largest mass climate demonstration in history—the Organic Consumers Association hosted a day of workshops as part of the NYC Climate Convergence. The final workshop was entitled “Now that the U.S. supports Climate-Smart Agriculture, is reform of our climate-dumb food system possible?” The speakers were Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen of the Organic Consumers Association, Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute, Elizabeth Kucinich of the Center for Food Safety, and myself representing IATP.
The discussion was passionate and hopeful—each of the speakers relayed methods of reversing the current carbon crisis. Elizabeth Kucinich posed an important question: “How will we be farming in 1000 years?”—pointing out that as we near peak water and peak oil, we will have no choice but to reform farming practices. In order to be sustainable environmentally and from a social justice perspective, this reform must take the form of agroecological, organic and regenerative agriculture. These types of agriculture have the potential to not only mitigate climate change, but to reverse it by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in soils and forests. As Ronnie Cummins pointed out, even if the world quit emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we would still have a problem because of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted so far. This indicates the need for organic and regenerative agriculture as a solution to climate change, and the good news is, we already know how to do it.
The solutions discussed in this workshop are the real cornerstones of climate-resilient and regenerative agriculture, providing a stark contrast to the empty rhetoric in the Framework Document of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA). The alliance is the only deliverable on the agenda for the agriculture session of the U.N. Climate Summit, and many NGOs and civil society organizations have serious doubts that it is climate smart on any level.
The Alliance lacks any environmental criteria, never defining what climate-smart agriculture is, or more importantly, what it is not. There is also no membership criteria, hoping it can be everything to everyone. The GACSA is calling on governments, food processors and sellers, scientists, educational organizations, civil society and non-government organizations, multilateral and international organizations, and private sector corporations to the table. So far, the Climate-Smart family includes members like Yara (the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturer), Syngenta, McDonalds and Walmart. The lack of environmental or membership criteria paired with the lack of a clear governance structure makes it extremely likely that the Alliance will serve primarily as a corporate greenwashing platform.
Real solutions in agriculture are those which are based on agroecology and place power in the hands of farmers instead of in the hands of corporations—as a group of scientists and scholars outlined in a letter to the FAO last week. Today’s workshops organized by the Organic Consumers Association discussed some of those options, and made the idea of reversing the carbon crisis seem possible.
Posted September 18, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan
How much would you pay for a pork chop that was two percent leaner? Would you eat such a pork chop if nanoscale minerals were mixed into the hog feed to achieve that two percent reduction? Such questions are before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as it considers what to advise the animal feed and mineral supplement industry about their efforts to incorporate atomic- to molecular-sized materials into feed.
This summer, the FDA requested comment on what to advise the animal feed industry about nanomaterials. IATP and others have repeatedly called for the FDA to require pre-market and post-market safety assessment of nanomaterials prior to their commercialization. To the latest FDA request, IATP responded that if FDA continues to not require adequate pre- and post-market safety assessments, it should at least strongly urge the industry to report to FDA in great detail about its nano-feed products. We also said that industry reported data affecting public health, the environment and worker safety should be not classified as Confidential Business Information (CBI) not available to the public.
IATP joined an International Center for Technology Assessment lawsuit in 2011 to sue the FDA for failure to regulate nanomaterials. In lieu of mandatory rules on nanotechnology, the FDA is issuing voluntary guidance documents that do not carry legal obligations but advise industry on what FDA suggests. These guidance documents do not require nano-feed additive developers to do anything about their use of nanomaterials and nanotechnology. (IATP commented last month about two other FDA Guidance documents on nanotechnology.)
Feed for agricultural animals is largely formulated from grains and oilseeds, mostly corn and soy. A very small fraction of the feed, perhaps four percent (measured in grams per kilogram), comprises a premix of essential minerals and vitamins. Nanomaterial additives to feed are measured by micro-grams, i.e., millionths of a gram, although it is not clear how such minute material can be weighed accurately. According to recent research, nano-sizing feed, or indeed, food, additives enables more rapid and complete absorption of essential minerals and vitamins. As a result, for example, hogs consuming nano-sized chromium result in leaner and “better” pork.
The FDA draft guidance advised industry not to assume that because a mineral in conventional feed had been deemed Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, that the nanoscale version of the same mineral would also be GRAS. IATP strongly supported this commonsensical advice. The draft guidance also implied some important questions.
The FDA asked the feed industry how it would ensure that nanomaterials were uniformly mixed in feed so that a hog or a cow would not be overdosed with a nano-scale essential minerals, such as zinc or chromium. IATP suggested that the FDA also ask how that uniformity would be maintained after manufacture, since nanomaterials, if not chemically bound, are highly mobile. A uniform mixture during feed additive manufacture might become less so during feed storage and on-farm use.
FDA informed industry that every use of a nanomaterial would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. We urged FDA to require both a pre-market and post-market safety assessment of all nanomaterials and to prohibit industry Confidential Business Information claims about data in such assessments that pertain to human, animal and/or plant health, and worker safety. However, FDA is budget hamstrung by zealously anti-regulatory members of Congress, so we urged the agency to evaluate the nanomaterials that bio-accumulate in humans and animals first, including nano metal oxides, metals and carbon nanotubes (used, e.g., to strengthen automobile parts).
Evidently, a byproduct of feeding livestock with nanomaterials would be manure laced with nanomaterials. We recommended that FDA share anonymized data supplied by industry to enable the Environmental Protection Agency to plan and carry out research about the effect of nanomaterial residues in manure on soil, water and plant health. We also asked the FDA to share data with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to help it protect feed mill workers manufacturing feed with nanomaterials and farmers mixing their own feed with nanomaterials in mineral and vitamin pre-mixes. Both kinds of data sharing could result in protections for workers, farmers and the environment even in the absence of formal regulation of nanomaterials in animal feed.
As far as we know, nano feed additives have not been commercialized but remain in the research and development phase. If so, IATP urges FDA to use the information and data gathered from the animal feed industry in the voluntary consultations with the FDA to do pre-market safety assessment. If nano-food additives have been commercialized without FDA pre-market safety assessment, IATP urges the agency to force withdrawal of those products from the market until FDA and other agencies demonstrate that they safe for consumption by animals, safe for the environment and safe for the workers who manufacture and use nano feed additives.
FDA and other U.S. federal agencies with legal obligations to protect public health, the environment and worker safety, invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the research and development of products that are enabled by nanotechnology and/or that incorporate nanomaterials. This use of the taxpayers’ money should include public meetings about whether specific nanotechnology applications are the optimal means to achieve a technical or policy objective. It may well be the case, particularly in food and agricultural applications of nanotechnology, that technologies or agricultural practices already exist to achieve the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) co-funded or supported objectives less expensively and with less risk.
Posted September 17, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell
Nearly 70 scientists and scholars of sustainable agriculture and food systems sent an open letter to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) today, praising the organization for convening an International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. Given the multiple, overlapping challenges posed by continued food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity, the letter calls for a solid commitment to agroecology from the international community.
According to the letter, agroecology’s broad base in science and society means it is uniquely suited to address today’s challenges in food and agricultural systems. It can be considered a science, a set of practices, and a social movement for food sovereignty and justice. As a science, agroecology integrates multiple disciplines into a "trans-discipline," drawing on fields such as ecology, agronomy, political economy and sociology. As a set of practices, it can provide multiple benefits to society and the environment, from reducing pollution from agriculture and supporting the conservation of the environment to boosting nutrition security and improving resilience in a changing climate. As a movement, it can address the vitally important issues of distributive and procedural justice in food and agriculture—that is, who gets access to what resources and how to decide. The letter points out that, according to well-established science, social movements and addressing distributive and procedural justice are just as crucial as scientific and technical innovation in sustainably implementing the right to food.
International institutions are currently using a variety of different terms, with different meanings, to identify a way forward for agriculture and food systems to address critical crises including climate change and food security. The FAO and other international institutions like the World Bank have supported other approaches which they call “climate-smart” agriculture and “sustainable” intensification. The letter criticizes these as vague terms that are subject to abuse through misleading or incomplete definitions. In contrast, agroecology is a holistic approach with a long history and an extensive body of knowledge grounded in science and in the experiences and leadership of farmers themselves.
The scholars call on FAO member states and the international community to build upon the proceedings of this symposium in order to launch a U.N. system-wide initiative on agroecology as the central strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience in the face of water crises. Such an initiative could form one of the pillars the future work of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and make an invaluable contribution to negotiations about agriculture within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change process and the post-2015 Sustainable Development agenda. The letter closes with a hope that the FAO will consider this proposal at the forthcoming Committee on World Food Security meeting on October 13–18, 2014.
Posted September 12, 2014 by Tara Ritter
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is taking a new approach to engage the public on climate change: invite television weather forecasters around the world to release weather reports from the year 2050. The reports, which can be viewed here, are based on climate science and provide a frightening visual of what life could be like in a few short decades if the world continues emitting greenhouse gases at current levels.
These videos are being launched throughout September in the lead-up to the U.N. Climate Summit in New York later this month. Over 100 Heads of State, including President Barack Obama, will gather on September 23 to discuss global action on climate change. Though the Summit is not an official U.N. negotiation, leaders will make key announcements about steps their countries will take to mitigate climate change. The summit is expected to build momentum leading up to the U.N. Conference of Parties (CoP) in Paris at the end of 2015, where a new global climate change agreement may emerge.
Many avenues exist to cut global greenhouse gas emissions but not all of them are beneficial at the community level. As global discussions on climate change mitigation progress, community-level adaptation must also be emphasized. Communities will experience the direct impacts of climate change on their economies and infrastructure—including flooding, drought, storms and volatile temperatures—and therefore must begin to adapt now to prepare for the climate of 2050. In addition, community-based, decentralized energy systems will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A strong global climate change agreement may reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, but it will not prevent extreme weather events as a result of the warming that has already occurred.
Most recently, the U.S. Weather Channel released a mock weather report for the WMO series highlighting a hurricane submerging Miami’s South Beach, a killer heat wave in Chicago, and a persistent “mega-drought” in the Southwest. This kind of reporting, though speculative, gives us a glimpse of what we can expect as climate change causes weather to become more extreme and more erratic. U.N.-level discussions about cutting global greenhouse gas emissions and building low-carbon economies are urgently needed, but communities need to convene their own discussions on how to prepare for the climate change impacts on their infrastructure, businesses, public institutions, families and daily living.
Posted September 4, 2014 by Jim Harkness
The headline of last week’s Science Insider blog was eye-catching: “China pulls plug on genetically modified rice and corn.” (The RT version was even better: “End of the line: GMO production in China halted.”) What actually happened was far less dramatic or definitive. On August 17, biosafety permits for research on two strains of GM corn and one of GM rice expired and were not renewed by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. But exactly why this happened and what it means for the future of genetic engineering of food in China is uncertain. (This is being debated in the Chinese press.)
The apparent tightening of enforcement is not limited to GMO experiments. Since last fall, several large shipments of corn from the U.S. have been turned back on the grounds that they contained a Syngenta GE variety that has not been approved for sale in China.
Whatever the reason for these actions, the stakes are high in the larger game of China’s agricultural and food policies. Once fully self-sufficient and cut off from global trade, China is now more and more deeply integrated into the global food system as both an importer and exporter. But open as its food economy has become, the government seems deeply ambivalent about GMOs. GM cotton is grown widely in western China and GM soy is imported from the U.S. and Brazil, but GM rice and wheat have never been approved for sale or consumption. China’s shifting regulatory decisions can have major reverberations around the world. U.S. grain trade groups told Bloomberg News Service that losses in 2014-15 due to the rejection of GE corn from the U.S. could top $6 billion, and the question of who should bear those losses is driving a wedge between farmers, traders and seed companies. So it’s worth taking a critical look at the various reasons that have been put forward to explain China’s recent actions.
There is a very messy public debate about GM food in China, and both sides now claim that last week’s decision was the work of anti-GMO forces in society. In an op-ed posted in The Conversation, Nottingham-based biotech researcher Cao Cong writes that unlike the UK, (Where regulators recently OK’d field trials for a GE oilseed.) China has “an anti-GM movement whose power and influence are more than matched by its fervour [sic] and sheer, undiluted paranoia.” Cao concludes that this movement has now effectively smothered China’s hopes for feeding itself. (This is an interesting image, contrasting the UK’s “rational” regulators with their Chinese counterparts who are held hostage by the whims of a superstitious public!)
Opposition to GE food in China comes from a variety of sources. Some opposition comes from the international environmental movement. Greenpeace has fought this issue for a decade, most notably through their discovery of experimental GE rice being sold illegally as early as 2005 in Hubei province. Although people on both sides say their opponents are tools of foreign powers, most anti-GMO sentiment in China seems to be homegrown, coming from farmers, scientists, consumers and members of the national defense establishment. And while a few high-profile anti-GMO activists seem to fit Cao Cong’s image of paranoid fear-mongering, his argument glosses over the more reasonable and pragmatic concerns that may have motivated last week’s decision.
The most immediate of these concerns stems from the discovery last month that GE rice is again being sold illegally to the public. That story was broken by News Probe, an investigative television program that commissioned testing of rice from a supermarket in the city of Wuhan. One of the strains they found was a pest-resistant variety developed by Zhang Qifa at South China Normal University, which is also in Wuhan, and the permit for continued cultivation of that strain is one of the three that were subsequently not renewed. It is entirely possible that, embarrassed by the revelation of their regulatory failure, the Ministry of Agriculture simply decided not to renew any of the three permits.
While last week’s decision appears to be a response to scandal, the ongoing rejection of GE corn shipments may have nothing to do with biosafety concerns. China’s recent corn harvest have been huge, as its farmers responded to new price supports and other production subsidies, so some say the sudden vigilance of customs toward cheap U.S. imports is economically motivated. As one American corn broker put it, “China can overlook GMOs when stocks are tight, but when they're trying to protect their domestic farmers or they're in surplus, they can come up with things to mess with us…”
The negative news about GMOs during 2014 is a surprising contrast to just a year ago, when the official media published a series of pro-GMO statements from Agriculture Ministry officials and interviews with scientists that seemed designed to pave the way for broader acceptance of GE foods. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Chinese politics and governance have long been characterized by cycles of loosening and tightening (“fang/shou”) of control. In politics, this means turning a blind eye to free expression or dissent at certain times, and then suddenly cracking down at others. Similarly, Chinese environmental and health regulations may be very strict on paper, but enforcement tends to be uneven, tightening in response to major scandals but otherwise loose, sporadic or selective. In the cases of GE experiments and import restrictions there has been no policy or rule change, merely a stricter enforcement of existing rules. US grain traders can complain, but strictly speaking they are the ones who are in the wrong for trying to sell China a seed variety that the Chinese government has not yet approved.
There is also a bigger question of whether or not China really needs GMOs in order to feed itself, as biotechpromoters claim. China’s chemical-intensive farming system is causing a variety of environmental and public health problems. The introduction of Bt cotton (now the most widely planted GE crop) was initially hailed for dramatically reducing pesticide use, but subsequent studies found that after several years, exploding populations of pests that were not susceptible to Bt eliminated those initial advantages. And as the economic and environmental returns to GE crops diminish, China’s non-GE agriculture—warts and all—continues to achieve bumper food harvests.
One final factor in all of this is the current high-level political situation in China. The tightening up of regulations on GMOs is taking place in a general atmosphere of re-centralized control in Chinese society as new President Xi Jinping consolidates his position. After Tiananmen, China’s leaders seemed to regard deregulation and opening up as the recipe for national prosperity. (With notable exceptions such as Falun Gong, Tibet and Xinjiang!) That formula brought rapid GDP growth, but at a tremendous cost in terms of social inequality, corruption and environmental degradation. Xi doesn’t want to growth to stop, but seems committed to imposing new discipline in the Party, the economy and society, and a more assertive nationalist position in foreign affairs and trade. Regulators in Agriculture and Customs taking a harder line to rein in research and trade in GMOs is consistent with this broad trend toward reassertion of central control.
So on one side of the balance sheet, the GMO crops that China approved turned out not to be a game-changer after all. On the other side, there are biosafety questions, a lack of effective regulation, economic competitiveness issues, a highly skeptical public and major export markets like Japan and Europe that reject GMO foods. Seen in this light, China’s reluctance to embrace GMOs makes perfect sense.
Jim Harkness is IATP's senior advisor on China and the former president of IATP.
Posted September 3, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn
A few weeks ago IATP received a leaked draft proposal for the chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS, or food and plant safety) measures in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), being negotiated between the U.S. and EU. Steve Suppan has been tracking food safety issues in trade for decades, and quickly wrote an analysis outlining the ways this proposal could weaken existing standards and make it harder to implement new food safety rules. Like most such drafts, it was partial information, a snapshot of what the negotiators (in this case, probably EU negotiators) hoped to table at the trade talks.
Steve noted that there are fundamental contradictions inherent in mandating “least trade restrictive” norms for SPS regulations that otherwise would seek to optimize public health. The chapter indicates negotiators continue to subordinate SPS regulations to the object of maximizing trade. The text supports the U.S. approach to not require port of entry food inspections and testing, meaning food contamination outbreaks will be harder to trace to their origin, and liability harder to assess—a win for U.S. meat and food companies that could jeopardize food safety for consumers. “While many key details regarding things like GMOs are still hidden,” he said, “it’s clear public health is losing out to corporate interests in a big way.”
Surprisingly, EC spokesman Isaac Valero Ladrón responded to Steve’s analysis in an article on Law360, claiming that he got it wrong. “There is no contradiction between a commitment to seek ‘least trade restrictive measures’ and the enforcement of high safety standards,” he said, and anyway there is no reason to worry since the proposals don’t go beyond what’s already been decided at the World Trade Organization.
This kind of email exchange is still a far cry from an informed public debate, but we saw it as an opening to consult with a few partners. We issued a short joint reply to EU Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht, with Friends of the Earth Europe and Compassion in World Farming, which clarified, but didn’t contradict, our earlier analysis. In an article in Euractiv.com covering the new analysis, Mute Schimpf from Friends of the Earth Europe stated, ''The concerns of European citizens that the free trade agreement with the USA would undermine public safeguards were scoffed at by the Commissioner in charge of the negotiations. Now leaked documents show that the public has every right to be concerned.”
EU officials have asserted recently that the TTIP talks are the most transparent trade talks ever (something the EU Ombudsman is contesting). It’s a little hard to figure out how they can say that. Three separate drafts of the proposed Free Trade Areas of the Americas, including brackets indicating areas of disagreement, are still posted online, as are drafts of the ongoing WTO talks. If we had negotiating texts for TTIP, we would know exactly what’s on the table, and engage in a public dialogue. Until then, we’ll continue to piece together what we can from bits of text and exchanges like this one.