UN food agencies: in bed with agribusiness

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Giant food producers are buying influence, often through supposedly “charitable” foundations, to ensure that the UN shares their market-driven approaches

by Penny Cole
A World to Win, January 19, 2012
Global agri-business is increasingly influencing the work of publicly-funded food and agriculture bodies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on Agriculture Research (CGAR).

A new report from the biodiversity action group ETC charts this change with three case studies where private interest capped public benefit.

The first shows how the FAO rewrote a report on “greening agriculture” under the impact of demands from corporate interests. The original report was produced jointly by all the so-called “Rome-Based Agencies” (all the UN food agencies have their offices in Rome including FAO, CGAR, etc.). NGOs like Oxfam, and small farming interests were consulted.

But publication of the first draft brought demands for changes from Crop Life International, representing pesticide manufacturers, the International Fertilizer Industry Association, and the New Zealand Farmers association, amongst others.

Without consulting the original authors, FAO rewrote the report to emphasise the importance of high-tech in the food chain, muffle data implying that the industrial food system is leading to the doubling and tripling of type 2 diabetes, and defend the role of meat and dairy products in a green economy.

A warning that the big transnational seed/chemical companies are patenting multi-genome “climate ready” crops was muted. And the report includes the astonishing statement that “we need to ultimately move people out of farming.”

Challenged by ETC about this phrase, Ann Tutwiler, FAO Deputy Director General for Knowledge, retorted:

“Sorry – why would we want to shift to more labour intensive practices? It seems to me that we want to reduce the labour intensity of farming and shift labour to more productive uses in the agrifood systems, science, etc. Farming needs to be more knowledge intensive and more capital (including natural capital) intensive, but we need to ultimately move people out of farming.”

This represents a modern version of the “green revolution” approach which is historically responsible for world hunger. The 20th century approach was based on intensive use of pesticides and fertiliser. The 21st century approach adds gene-manipulation to the mix.

It is transmitted into the agencies by staff recruited from big business, and by the growing influence of corporations and corporate foundations – such as the Gates Foundation – at the highest level. Tutwiler is herself a former agri-business lobbyist.

Case number two involves CGAR’s International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas based in Syria. They signed a three-year contract with the Mexican beer industry to provide them with new strains of malting barley for assessment. In return, the industry partner would have a Mexico monopoly on any successful strains. This may actually breach CGAR rules, but how many other such deals are happening?

Case number three relates to the gene sequencing of pigeon peas by CGAR’s Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Last November they made a headline grabbing announcement that they had completed the sequence – but in fact the complete sequence had been published a month before, by government-backed Indian scientists.

Why was ICRISAT not working in partnership with them? Because they chose to replicate the work, partnered up with Beijing Genomics Institute (the world’s largest gene sequencing company) and Monsanto.

Industrialised food is now the world’s biggest industry, bigger even than energy. To continue expanding, the corporations must exploit land in Africa and Asia. But there’s a problem – these key areas are already being affected by climate change – both drought and extreme rainfall.

So the corporates are jumping on board the UN expert networks, to get a share of the public funding invested in new crop varieties. They are buying influence, often through big “charitable” foundations, to ensure the UN shares their market-driven approaches.

Some corporations buy US politicians by the dozen to promote the view that anthropogenic climate change does not exist. Other corporations busily climate proof their business and prepare to profit.

Planning to meet climate change with fairer land distribution and sustainable organic methods is increasingly blocked out of the picture under the influence of corporations. We urgently need to transform this, reminding ourselves that food and industrialised food are not at all the same thing.