CBD agricultural biodiversity discussions in danger

The thirteenth meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) was held in Rome from 18-22 February 2008 and discussed the issue of agricultural biodiversity.

While NGOs, farmers’ organizations, some governments and the FAO called for a paradigm shift towards biological intensification of agricultural systems and away from chemically-dependent production of food (see TWN Sus Ag Info: Agricultural biodiversity discussions at the CBD, 22 February 2008), the SBSTTA’s recommendations failed to articulate this.

Instead, there was no consensus on some key issues, with precautionary language on biofuels, climate change and perverse incentives bracketed (indicating no agreement). The recommendations from SBSTTA are also weak, and new language is needed to take the CBD’s programme of work forward, particularly in supporting biodiversity-enhancing agriculture that is controlled by small-scale food providers.

The issue of agricultural biodiversity and SBSTTA’s recommendations will be taken up again at the Ninth Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-9), to be held in May 2008 in Bonn. There is therefore still an opportunity for Parties to the CBD to take bold steps to strengthen the decision on agricultural biodiversity.

Please find below a review and report from Patrick Mulvany of Practical Action on the outcomes of the agricultural biodiversity negotiations. More information on the SBSTTA meeting and its outcomes is available at Official documents from the CBD are at

With best wishes,
Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,
10400 Penang,

Item 1

Brief review of the Agricultural Biodiversity negotiations at CBD / SBSTTA 13
by Patrick Mulvany, Practical Action

28 Feb 2008

Refs: ECO 5 article “The Decline and Fall of the Roman SBSTTA” and ENB’s summary report .

Highlighted text of the Recommendation is available at

These negotiations could have been visionary. They could have proposed a ‘paradigm shift’, as called for by FAO, towards biological intensification of agricultural systems and away from chemically-dependent production of food. They did not. Small mercies that the Recommendation still retains some reference to sustaining ecosystem functions related to agricultural biodiversity that are so essential for securing future food supplies.

COP 9 will have a lot of work to do, not only ‘unbracketing’ precautionary text on biofuels, climate change and perverse incentives. Parties will also need to insert new language that takes the programme of work forward to address the challenges of conservation, sustainable use and development of agricultural biodiversity, especially on-farm, where it can adapt to new challenges, such as climate change – both mitigation and adaptation.

COP 9 has much to build on, not least the landmark Decision III/11 and its Annex 1, see, and Decision V/5, with its programme of work and agreement, reconfirmed by COP 8, to a moratorium on the field testing and commercialisation of Terminator technology. Also the multiple efforts of countries and organisations and especially food providers themselves, emphasised by Indigenous Peoples and Via Campesina at SBSTTA 13, about their work on agricultural biodiversity and the constraints to their inalienable rights to use, develop, exchange and benefit from this.

It also has some text, that although somewhat buried could be given the oxygen of exposure as priority issues in the COP Decision. In the BOX below extracted from the 7 pages of text of the Recommendation are 8 points are of interest that could be strengthened. None is particularly new, they are issues that have been discussed before. But each illustrates a key area for future work of the CBD if it is to achieve its mandate and sustain Life on Earth.

There is much left to do between now and COP 9. The good text must be defended and strengthened and preparations must be made to ensure rejection of any negative text, that is not in the Recommendation at present but might be introduced e.g. on the transfer of ‘new technologies’ (i.e. biotechnology) or ‘genetic modification’ or ‘Terminator/ GURTS’ etc.

The major debates at COP 9 will centre on the bracketed text on agrofuels, climate change mitigation and perverse incentives. But on the latter, more should be done, to make clearer the ultimately self-defeating and biodiversity-reducing effects of supporting chemically-based intensive industrial food production systems and to Decide, not only to call for the removal of perverse incentives but to recommend increased incentives and support for biodiversity-enhancing agriculture, controlled by small-scale food providers.

Let us hope Parties take up the challenge to make this Decision ‘visionary’ and competent to face up to the challenges of the 21st century. And that on Agrofuels, in particular, the potential Bonnfire of Biodiversity can be prevented by COP 9.

To repeat the exhortation from the article in ECO 1 @ SBSTTA 13:

“The Parties to the CBD need to seize this historic moment and:
* Put culture back into agriculture
* Put biology back into biodiversity
* Put food sovereignty, food providers and their social organisations at the centre of agricultural biodiversity policy and practice “

Ref: ECO 21-1 ‘Food Providers hold the Key – the CBD has the Mechanism’


Selected text from CBD/SBSTTA/13/L.2
Recommendations on the review of the Agricultural Biodiversity Programme of Work

On-farm conservation (part of adaptation and capacity building):

10. Invites Parties, other Governments, relevant international and regional organizations, local and indigenous communities, farmers, pastoralists and plant and animal breeders to promote, support and remove constraints to on-farm and in situ conservation of agricultural biodiversity through participatory decision-making processes in order to enhance the conservation of plant and animal genetic resources, related components of biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems, and related ecosystem functions;


12. Urges Parties, other Governments, and relevant organizations, to engage indigenous and local communities, farmers, pastoralists, animal breeders and other stakeholders, including those whose livelihoods depend on the sustainable use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity, to apply the ecosystem approach to agriculture…

Programme of Work:

16. Urges Parties, other Governments and relevant organizations:

(a) To strengthen dialogue with farmers, including through international and national farmers’ organizations, as appropriate, in the implementation of the programme of work;

(b) To promote opportunities for indigenous and local communities, and local stakeholders to participate in the development and implementation of national biodiversity strategies, action plans and programmes for agricultural biodiversity; and

(c) To improve the policy environment to support local-level management of agricultural biodiversity;

Thematic focus on Pollinators, Soil Biodiversity and Food and Nutrition:

23. ... to carry out further work and compile and disseminate information to improve the understanding of soil biodiversity, its interaction with above-ground biodiversity, and other soil functions, the various ecosystem services that it provides, and the agricultural practices that affect it, and to facilitate the integration of soil biodiversity issues into agricultural policies

Climate Change:

26. Encourages Parties and other Governments, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders, to gather, information on lessons learned about the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity, and integrate these into climate-change adaptation [and mitigation] planning [and cross-sectoral planning in agricultural areas],

27. … to gather and disseminate information, on:…

(b) Ways and means to build resilience into food and agricultural livelihood systems as part of strategies for climate change adaptation, especially in communities of developing countries that are dependent on rain-fed agriculture for local food supplies;

(c) how vulnerable communities, especially in developing countries, might adapt to the

impacts of climate-induced changes in agricultural practice;

(COMMENT: there is no call in this Recommendation to insert the above into the UNFCCC adaptation negotiations. A separate Recommendation on Climate Change gets closer to recommending this, but even there, Parties hold back… why?)


(COMMENT: the whole section on biofuels is bracketed and some Parties claim that some of the text was not even discussed at SBSTTA 13. There is also reference to the SBSTTA 12/7 recommendation on biofuels that will be brought in to the agricultural biodiversity debate at COP 9)

[30 (c) Requests that Parties immediately adopt a precautionary approach by suspending the introductions of any new supportive measures for the consumption of biofuels…]


33 (c) To further investigate the use of agricultural biodiversity to develop sustainable agricultural systems that contribute to improved livelihoods, enhance biodiversity and make use of its benefits, as well as conserving the most vulnerable and potentially useful species;

General considerations:

34. Welcomes the adoption of the multi-year programme of work of the FAO Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, whose implementation would also contribute to the implementation of the Convention programmes of, in particular the programme of work on agricultural biodiversity;


Item 2

The Decline and Fall of the Roman SBSTTA?
by Patrick Mulvany, PracticalAction

22 February 2008

At 2:00am Thursday morning, Delegates concluded their session by ditching the ‘Vision’ for the work of the CBD on Agricultural Biodiversity. As they left the building, the Moon entered a total eclipse. An Omen? 

Not only is agricultural biodiversity still threatened but SBSTTA’s decline may precede a fall unless COP takes a bold decision to ensure the primacy of sustaining agricultural biodiversity over the commodification of agriculture. 

On Wednesday night, through tedious interventions, questioning and often deleting text that might, even slightly, challenge the unfettered growth in production of, and international trade in, industrial agricultural and livestock products including agrofuels, a few countries wore down any opposition in a long, repetitive, monolingual session. 

The result is a limp paper that is literally ‘visionless’. It is weaker than the documents produced 12 years ago at their second meeting held in Montreal in 1996. That meeting built upon the Rio process and recognised the importance of agricultural biodiversity, ‘its distinctive features and problems requiring distinctive solutions’. Later that year in Buenos Aires, COP 3 agreed the first Decision on agricultural biodiversity. To this they attached Annex 1 which succinctly summarised the challenges to and benefits of agricultural biodiversity, translated four years later in Nairobi into a programme of work. 

Now, in Rome, the UN’s food and agriculture capital, SBSTTA 13 presaged another dynamic development of actions and policy - a ‘paradigm shift towards biological intensification’ as FAO described it in their opening speech and echoed in many lively interventions, Side Events, reports and posters throughout the week. 

SBSTTA could have built on all these calls for change that reinforce what, especially women, farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, forest dwellers and other food providers have been doing and saying since the dawn of civilisation: we need to work with nature, nurture the land and waters and agricultural biodiversity, using biologically-based agriculture, livestock production and fisheries that provide healthy local food for people and healthily functioning ecosystems. 

SBSTTA could have championed this – a move that would also help agriculture to adapt to and mitigate climate change. It could also have moved policy decisively against carbon-consuming and agrochemically-driven production of commodities and agrofuels, that pollutes water, degrades land, contaminates foods and feed and creates dependency on remote and powerful corporations. 

But there’s not even a sniff of a paradigm shift and, worse: 
* There is no strong call to insert agricultural biodiversity policies and actions into the
UNFCCC adaptation / mitigation discussions. 
* Ecosystems are mostly described as providing ‘services’ not ‘functions’, emphasising
economic primacy over ecology.
* And on agrofuels, rather than abstention, SBSTTA may recommend to COP that there is a need to ‘develop a tool to accurately assess... the degradation of ecosystems due to policy measures that increase the demand for biofuels’. No call for an immediate moratorium in sight! Watch out for a BonnFire of Biodiversity at COP 9.

Will Parties take the bold step to rewrite this potentially regressive SBSTTA recommendation and, in Bonn, agree a visionary Decision on agricultural biodiversity that will secure our future food, livelihoods and Life on Earth?