Sustainability at the crossroads: Which way forward?

At a Third World Network forum during the WSSD, NGOs, scientists, government representatives and UN officials met to discuss issues ranging from globalisation to a farmer’s battle against Monsanto. Lim Li Ching reports.

AS governments hunkered down to negotiate words at the sustainable development summit, often avoiding critical issues, there was high energy, lively discussions and sharing of experiences among civil society groups in Johannesburg.

Third World Network held a forum on the theme ‘Sustainability at the Crossroads: Which Way Forward?’ on 28 August 2002. Exploring the root causes of the crises of poverty, ecology, governance and globalisation, the forum also provided a platform for learning and sharing experiences, and discussion on options and alternatives.  Some highlights of the day follow.

Uneven benefits of globalisation

Martin Khor, Director of TWN, deconstructed the establishment view of ‘globalisation’ as the inevitable integration of peoples, economies and social-cultural aspects, aided by science and technology.  He pointed out that while there is an integration process going on, in terms of trade, finance, investment and technology, what is happening in reality is a particular integration of developing countries in these key areas in the world economy, but national and local disintegration on the ground. 

The unfairness of the situation is exemplified in the trade arena, where liberalisation is imposed on the poor, through World Bank/IMF policies and structural adjustment programmes, and made binding through the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Meanwhile, rich countries can control how and when they liberalise. In fact, as Khor pointed out, trade policies in the US and EU are a combination of free trade and protectionism.

This is clear in the case of agriculture and textiles, where developing countries are forced to liberalise these sectors in the face of high protectionism in developed countries. For many, the impacts are devastating.  For example, the dumping of subsidised agricultural products from the North has led to the destruction of farmers’ livelihoods in the South.

The picture is no better in the industrial sectors.  Here, developing countries are told to lower their tariffs in order to reap consumer benefits. But as a result of rapid and large tariff reductions, local industries have collapsed, and there is huge employment loss.  Yet, the WTO is persisting in negotiating a new round of industrial tariff cuts for all countries.

In finance, liberalisation in the form of unfettered speculation on currencies and short-term capital flows is a relatively new phenomenon.  Khor explained that the post-World War Two Bretton Woods system was created with the IMF as the guardian of fixed exchange rates and capital controls, to prevent speculation, but the fixed exchange rate system was abandoned for floating exchange rates in 1972. Developing countries have now borne the brunt of speculation on their currencies and of short-term capital flows.

The liberalisation ideology on investment, postured by the World Bank and now the WTO, reverses post-colonial attempts of countries to control foreign ownership and regulate foreign investment for the nation’s benefit. Whilst the OECD’s Multilateral Agreement on Investment was defeated by the concerted action of NGOs and civil society organisations worldwide, Khor warned that the insidious agenda to allow foreign companies to enter a country without accompanying conditions and regulations continues via the push in the WTO to negotiate a new agreement on investment.

As for technology, the wrong kind of technology has flowed to developing countries.  Even as the North has developed stronger environmental regulations, the South has been left with so-called ‘dirty’ industries. To top it off, reverse transfer of technology, in the form of biopiracy of biological and genetic resources, and indigenous and traditional knowledge, facilitated by strong intellectual property rights regimes, has occurred from South to North.

Globalisation has thus meant that rich countries are integrated in a way that benefits them, while poor countries are integrated in a particular way that damages them and causes national disintegration. The marginalisation of developing countries, and in particular those from Africa, occurs because whilst they are taking part in the global economy, they are doing so in the wrong way. At the same time, they are faced with falling terms of trade and commodity prices, as well as mounting debt.

Yao Graham of TWN Africa added insight to the specific situation in Africa.  He critiqued NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the pledge by African leaders to eradicate poverty and to place African countries on the path of sustainable growth and development. NEPAD featured heavily in the WSSD Plan of Implementation’s section on African development, and is claimed as Africa’s response to the challenge of globalisation.  However, it presents a vision of African development underpinned by the corporate sector. [Throughout the WSSD process in the past six months, the Business Action for Sustainable Development - industry’s platform for the WSSD - vocally embraced NEPAD.]

Many African civil society groups have pointed out that NEPAD does not reflect the opinions of most Africans, and are sceptical as to whether it will really benefit the poor. Graham charged that NEPAD is not even well known in the continent, and has bypassed the parliamentary process in some countries. 

Farmers’ rights threatened

In a stark reminder of how patent law overrides farmers’ rights, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser took the floor to tell his story. Schmeiser has been farming for 53 years and is also a seed developer and seed saver.  In 1998, the agriculture giant Monsanto launched a lawsuit against him accusing him of alleged infringement of their patent on Roundup Ready canola. It initially accused him of obtaining the seeds illegally, but eventually withdrew that allegation.

The judge who presided over the case ruled that it did not matter how the genetically modified seeds got onto Schmeiser’s land, even specifying through cross-pollination, direct movement, by wind, floods and animals; he was guilty of patent infringement. The implications are that if any conventional plants are cross-pollinated by Monsanto’s gene, then those plants become Monsanto’s property. Even though Schmeiser did not ‘use’ the patent by spraying the crops with Roundup, this was immaterial, he was still found guilty.  Patent law is thus set above farmers’ rights and plant breeders’ privileges (Schmeiser himself is a plant breeder, descending from a family of farmers). 

He stressed that with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) there is no such thing as containment, as one cannot contain a life form once it is in the environment, nor can one control pollen. Secondly, there is no such thing as co-existence with organic and conventional farmers.

As a result of the introduction of GMOs in Canada, there is no longer pure soy or canola seed there. So much so that organic farmers in the province of Saskatchewan have launched a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and Aventis for releasing into the environment something they knew could not be controlled.  The farmers are seeking compensation for economic damage caused to certified organic grain producers due to GM contamination.  They are also seeking an injunction to prevent the introduction of GM wheat. 

Schmeiser further emphasised that there is also an issue of control at play.  Not only do farmers using GM seed have to sign a contract with Monsanto, which entails a loss of the right to save seeds, but there is also a Monsanto ‘police force’ that can enter farmers’ land without permission.  Farmers are encouraged to tell on each other if they suspect someone is infringing patents. This could lead to the breakdown of the social fabric of rural communities.  Monsanto is also not beneath sending threatening letters to farmers, he added.

Genetic engineering hazards

Dr Mae-Wan Ho from the Institute of Science in Society, UK unpacked the debacle that is the biotechnology industry.  She pointed out that worldwide, the industry is in trouble, with stocks plummeting, investment drying up and staff being laid off.

In addition, there is increasing evidence of genetic biohazards. This includes recent problems with genetically engineered drugs, the finding of transgenic DNA in human gut bacteria after volunteers were fed a single meal containing GM soya, the news that Bt transgenes from GM sunflowers can cross to related weeds to create superweeds, and that glyphosate (Roundup)-resistant marestail has developed and infested large areas of farmland in the US. Add to this the news of contamination of the UK GM field trials for the past three years by unapproved seeds containing an antibiotic resistance marker gene, and the picture is one of a technology that presents very real health and environmental risks. 

Ho asserted that GM crops are increasingly rejected around the world, including in Zambia, Karnataka (India) and Tasmania (Australia), and increasingly by consumers globally. Coupled with this is the tightening of biosafety regulations worldwide. More than 35 countries have laws in place or that are planned, which require the mandatory labelling of food containing GM ingredients, or else laws restricting the import of some gene-foods. Recently, Europe has opted for strict rules on traceability and labelling of GMOs.

Professor Terje Traavik, a virologist from the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, University of Tromso, called for more credible, case-by-case risk assessment in relation to GMOs.  Risk is defined as the probability of an unwanted event occurring, multiplied by the consequences it will have if the event occurs. An event that has a low probability of occurring can still represent a great risk if the consequences are great enough. With GMO releases, it is impossible for scientists to know about all possible events, particularly if a given plant is grown in different ecosystems and biotopes all over the world.

Traavik asked if we have really reached the level of scientific knowledge where it is possible to conduct a credible risk assessment.  He said the truthful answer was that it is not possible to make a reliable risk assessment for any GM crop plant at the moment.  He pointed to a recent EU preliminary guidance document that indicated that the levels of information needed for a real risk assessment would prevent any GM plant from being grown in Europe.  That is why the precautionary principle is so vital. Until there is more knowledge and understanding, releases should not take place.

One of the most pronounced risk factors related to GMOs is that we lack truly independent publicly funded risk associated research, as many scientists are working for the producer side.  Traavik thus called for reliable risk assessments conducted by truly independent scientists, and based on the precautionary principle.

GM food aid

Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika, Zambian scientist, then presented Zambia’s case for rejecting GM food aid.  He described the national consultation process, whereby a cross-section of Zambian society participated, including NGOs, farmers, women’s groups, members of parliament and the opposition, church groups and traditional leaders. The consultations strongly recommended that Zambia reject GM food aid.

This decision was taken based on the precautionary principle, in the absence of national biosafety regulations and adequate capacity to carry out reliable risk assessments, in the absence of evidence of safety to human health, and taking into consideration the threat of contamination to local seed varieties. The decision was also taken to protect Zambian agriculture production and export prospects. A particular outrage was that Zambia’s prior consent was not sought as to whether it would accept GM food aid.

Lewanika stressed that measures are being taken by the Zambian government to ensure that adequate food is available and accessible through arrangements with the private sector and via food reserves. A number of countries have already offered assistance to supply non-GM maize, as well as cash donations to purchase non-GM food.

When Lewanika called for African support for the Zambian position, the response from the forum participants was electric.  Many participants, including a minister and senior government officials from African countries, immediately pledged to show solidarity with Zambia. As a direct result of this session, African civil society groups at the WSSD organised a statement of support for Zambia’s position on GM food aid. By early September, more than 140 representatives and organisations from 26 countries in Africa had signed up to the statement, which will go to donor governments and the UN.

The African participants also pledged to work together regionally to increase their biosafety capacity and rejected being treated as a dumping or experimental ground for untested GM food.

Sustainable agriculture

In contrast to GM technology that wrests control over agriculture, and ultimately food security, out of the hands of farming communities into the hands of a few corporations, two case studies show how holistic and organic approaches to agriculture are making a difference in people’s lives. The final session of the day focussed on alternatives to the industrial model of agriculture that is typified by GM crops. 

Miguel Angel Nœ-ez from the Institute for the Production and Research of Tropical Agriculture (IPIAT), Venezuela, provided examples of agroecological agriculture in Venezuela. He pointed out that such methods, which take an ecological approach to agriculture, are sustainable, and productive to boot. The focus is very much on traditional, small-scale and alternative agriculture, whereby benefits accrue to local communities.

Million Belay from the Institute for Sustainable Development, Ethiopia then presented a study the Institute had carried out jointly with Ethiopia’s Environment Protection Authority.  The project worked with four local communities in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, to intensify production, as the communities know best, with composting introduced as a new technology.

The results were remarkable. Comparing the impacts of different inputs, they found that composting increases yield two to three times, comparing favourably with chemical fertilisers, and in the case of finger millet, outperforms chemical fertilisers.  Farmers also realised that the effect of chemical fertilisers lasts only in the short term, while the effect of compost is cumulative over several consecutive years.

The day ended on this note, with conviction that sustainable alternatives are indeed possible. And often it is local communities who are showing the way forward. Sustainable agriculture can deliver substantial increases in food production at low cost, while conserving biodiversity, soil and water.  There is thus an urgent need to concentrate effort, research, funds and policy support on proven sustainable agricultural practices, strengthening production by the poor themselves for local needs. 

In parallel, on the issue of globalisation, there needs to be a redesigning of policies such that nations can set their own national policies and choose to integrate in the global economy in a way that truly benefits them.

Perhaps the forum best illustrates that there is a wealth of knowledge available, independent of corporate interests, and that challenges from the local to the global can only be taken on when governments work hand in hand with farmers, indigenous peoples, public scientists and civil society organisations.