The purpose of the upcoming Justice Begins with Seeds conference is to grow the food sovereignty movement by advancing learning and building coalitions between the GMO counter-movement in the US, and other movements thriving to develop sustainable food systems, alleviate climate change through soil practices, defend the rights of indigenous communities, reduce social inequalities and encourage citizen democracy against corporatocracy.
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Interview with Katherine by Willi
As a symbol, what does a handful of GMO seeds mean to you?
GMO seeds represent a threat to securing a sustainable food source for future generations.
Are food aid orgs bringing GMO food / seed to underfed areas in the world?
Right now the Gates Foundation has been promoting an initiative called AGRA – Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa. AGRA promotes expensive, subsidized fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds, a concept that is not economically or environmentally sustainable. It puts the private sector in charge of the seed supply and replaces public and local seed systems. In addition, the Green Revolutions reduces resilience and creates a high level of dependency on subsidies and credit, putting small scale farmers at high risk.* (Source: Food Sovereignty Systems: Feeding the World, Regenerating Ecosystems, Rebuilding Local Economies and Cooling the Planet – all at the same time – November 2011)
As has been mentioned in many sources of information the Gates Foundation has embraced genetic engineering technologies for its ventures into Africa. The development of GMOs has not reflected the needs of consumers, smallholder farmers, or the environment but has explicitly been along lines to maximize profits of multinational corporations (such as Monsanto, which holds the patents on over three-quarters of the GMO seeds currently being planted) and reflects the view of the world of the technocratic elements of society – the engineers, businesspeople, and bureaucrats. GMOs embody power differentials in our society.
Do you feel that issues of food security are understood by the first world?
Living in San Francisco, a progressive city where the urban sustainable agriculture movement is strengthening, it’s easy to have a bias perspective on this question. But in general, if you look at the heavy subsidies that the First World governments are providing to farmers to ensure that massive monoculture conventional type of farming is being practiced to the point where corn is overproduced and given as feed for animals, there is a lack of understanding of what food security means for most of the world’s population.
Does IDEX promote permaculture as a localization strategy? If so, how?
International Development Exchange (IDEX) identifies, evaluates, and grows the best ideas from local leaders and organizations to alleviate poverty and injustice around the world. IDEX supports community-led solutions that are making a huge difference for people living in extreme poverty. The initiatives come from people who want to create change for themselves. We provide the financial support.
Local leaders and community members do the rest. The work or our grantees typically integrate two or more of our core themes:
• Women’s Empowerment
• Building local economies
• Caring for the environment
For many of the communities IDEX supports, land, water, and seeds are central to their survival, livelihoods and health. Permaculture is part of the agroecological practices our partner organizations value and promote to secure sustainability of their community livelihoods.
Together with these themes, our partners and grantees work in ways that honor the rights of women, indigenous communities and other minorities, reflect economic, social, cultural, and political realities, and create solutions that have commitment from the grassroots.
Please tell us what the key principles are in sustainable agriculture?
Thanks to the learnings of our South African partners: Biowatch and Surplus People’s Project based in Durban and Cape Town respectively, they’ve shared with us the core principles of agroecology, which is the model for sustainable agriculture. All the following text comes from a three-day agroecology conference workshop organized by Surplus People’s Project, African Center for Biosafety and the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign.
Agroecology (AE) came about with the convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy (the study of soil management and crop production) and ecology (the study of the relationships between organisms and the environment). As a science, AE is the application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems.
As a set of agricultural practices, AE seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies between the components of the agro-ecosystem. It provides the most favorable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and by raising soil biotic activity.
Agroecology has the following core principles – it:
• Recycles nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs;
• Integrates crops and livestock, because the one supports the other;
• Diversifies species and genetic resources in agro-ecosystems over time and space;
• Does not depend on a single crop;
• Does not use pesticides and fertilizers;
• Focuses on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system (every element, including soil, forest and livestock), rather than focusing on individual species; and
• Is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are developed from farmers’ knowledge and experimentation rather than delivered from the top down.
Agroecology as a basis for change – It is a counter movement to enable small-scale farmers and farm workers/ farm dwellers to take control of their natural resources and manage their environment in a sustainable way. It is viewed as an emancipatory political project based on social and economic justice, and rooted in ecologically sound practice.
Agroecology is not a one-size-fits-all approach – geographical and cultural diversity is important. Agroecology should be linked to broader social, political, cultural and economic transformation.
It would logical that the rich agri-business companies would have the most resources to assist NPOs? Are GMO’s being forced upon people in need?
Five giant corporations (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow) dominate the US$4.5 billion (2004 figures) global market for GE seed with income coming from seed sales and the technology fees farmers have to pay for using patented seeds. They are selling only two types of GE crops: herbicide resistant crops that allows the farmers to spray more herbicide; and crops that behave like insecticides.
Worldwide the US grows the most genetically engineered crops with an estimated 54.6 million hectares of GE crops produced in 2006. Argentina comes second with 18 million hectares, followed by Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay, India and South Africa in eighth place.
According to a Biowatch report, the South Africa government is still handing out GM maize to unsuspecting communities as “free” seed. “YieldGuard” GM maize has been handed out to communities with no explanation of what GM maize is, how it should be planted, what the environmental and health risks are, or that the GM maize can contaminate their traditional maize varieties. Fortunately, as a result of a recent farmer exchange, the Pongola community is aware of GMOs and they’ve said a loud “give it back” to the free maize seed!
How are poverty and issues of food security connected? Can you give us some examples?
In Africa, GMOs are marketed as a solution to poverty and food security and an opportunity African farmer should not miss. Since IDEX has been partnering with community-based organizations in South Africa for several years, we are familiar about the contextual situation in regards to GM crops. South Africa is the one of 7 developing countries worldwide, which are growing GM crops for commercial purposes, and I believe the only country in Africa producing a GE crop as part of the staple food of its population – GE white maize. South Africa imports and exports GM maize as animal feed.
South Africa now devotes an estimated 300,000 hectares to growing GE white and yellow maize, soybean and cotton. About 80% of the cotton grown in South Africa is GE. Field trials have been conducted on potatoes, wheat, canola, sugarcane, apple, eucalyptus, strawberry, sugar beet, tomato and sweet potato to identify GE varieties for commercial production.
South African agriculture mirrors the high levels of inequality in the country. There is large-scale industrialized commercial farming sector and a small-scale, labor intensive, low input sector where farming is often one of a number of livelihood strategies for poor rural households.
Commercial agriculture produces most of the food for the country and makes an important contribution to export earnings. Small-scale agriculture is largely confined to the former apartheid homelands. These areas remain home to a third of South Africa’s population and 70% of the poor. Most small-scale farming contributes to the survival of poor rural households with any surplus sold on local markets to meet cash needs.
Most of the usage of GE crops is mainly in the commercial sector. Commercial farmers are accustomed to buying seeds and other inputs. Most small-scale farmers save seed from the harvest for planting.
In South Africa, the uptake of GE crops amongst small-scale farmers have been limited to schemes (government packages) where farmers receive a package of inputs and support and loans from the Land Bank. Even though industry reports have indicated an increase of yields of up to 220 per cent for small-scale GE cotton and maize farmers in South Africa, the farmers risk getting trapped in debt cycles if their crops fail and they are not able to repay loans and buy seed again.
South Africa has never developed a policy on Genetically Engineered crops, nor included the public in decision-making about GE activities in the country. The National Department of Agriculture is responsible for both promoting and regulating GMOs and biosafety, while the Department of Health is responsible for labeling legislation and monitoring health impacts. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the lead agent for biosafety and biodiversity has been silenced by other more influential government departments and has almost no say over the impact of GMOs on the environment.
South Africa does have a GMO Act 15 of 1997, which is supposed to regulate the production and release of GMOs in the country and should address biosafety concerns. Regulations passed in 1999 cover permits, risk assessment, registration of facilities, public notification of a proposed trial or general release of GMOs, accidents, waste management and appeals.
The GMO Act contains a number of flaws. It does not make adequate provisions for risk assessments, it imposes liability for environmental and other damage on the end user (farmer or consumer) rather than the provider, and it does not allow for proper public input or oversight in permit granting procedures.
The Act is essentially a mechanism to fast-track permits for field trials, commercial releases and the import and export of GE crops.
There still hasn’t been one environmental impact assessment (EIA) done for any proposed GMO release in South Africa.
There has been no public policy process to determine the use of GE in South Africa and decision-making has been characterized by a lack of transparency and denial of access to information, as it was witnessed in the High Court case between Biowatch South Africa, Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture.
Biowatch is a small South African non-governmental organization campaigning in the public interest for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, biosafety and farmers’ rights. For many years it has been opposing the rapid spread of genetically modified (GM) crops in South African agriculture. It has always argued that there are health and environmental risks resulting from this technology, and that it diminishes food security and food sovereignty.
In 2000, the state had consistently refused to provide Biowatch with requested official information about the planting of GM crops in South Africa. As a result, Biowatch was forced to take legal action to exercise its constitutional right to this information.
This litigation brought in the public interest by Biowatch to compel the Department of Agriculture to provide access to information held by it, relating to permits for the introduction of genetically modified food and crops in South Africa, was held in court in May 2004.
Biowatch originally instituted the action – relying on its constitutional right of access to information – against the Registrar Genetic Resources, Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms and the Minister Agriculture (all high-level entities). Monsanto intervened in the court case, on the basis that it needs to protect its commercial confidentiality. The parties were later joined by Stonevilled Pedigreed Seed Company and Delta and Pine Land, both distributors of Monsanto’s GE seed.
This is a classic case of where huge multinational interests are protected by the government, at the expense of transparency, democracy and social justice. Not only are these corporations unaccountable, but the government in the courts is now acting to protect their interests.
This case was conducted on the basis for Africa and its people to have the right to make an informed choice about what they grow and eat and not be subjected to inappropriate political pressure to compromise their food security.
In 2009 Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs handed down judgment in the Biowatch case, calling the case “a matter of great interest to the legal profession, the general public, and bodies concerned with public interest litigation.” Justice Sachs set aside the costs order awarded against Biowatch in favor of Monsanto and further awarded legal costs in the High Court hearings in favor of Biowatch and against the state. The bench of eleven judges was unanimous in its decision.
The judgment in the Constitutional Court was the culmination of a nine-year legal battle. The case has important implications for South African justice. It means that organizations acting in the public interest will be able to litigate to gain their rights without necessarily expecting the “chilling effect” of costs orders against them. This bodes well for public confidence in the South African legal system.
“This verdict is a victory for Biowatch but also sets an important precedent for all those promoting the public interest”, has said Rose Williams, Biowatch’s director. “Biowatch activities can now continue without the threat of Monsanto putting an end to them. We wish to thank the many hundreds of individuals and organizations who have supported us during the course of the case, as well as the Legal Resources Centre for representing us so ably.”
Katherine’s Bio –
A native of Peru, Katherine has been with the IDEX team since 2005 specializing in partnership development, participatory grantmaking and social justice philanthropy. Katherine travels regularly to Guatemala, Mexico and South Africa as part of IDEX site visits and selection of new grantees. Katherine is passionate about bridging global learnings from IDEX Partners with local US-based organizations and supports spaces for exchanges of experiences and information. Katherine′s most illuminating experience was volunteering with an indigenous women-led organization in Guatemala for 5 months, supporting their economic development and training programs. Katherine earned a Master′s in International Relations from San Francisco State University in 2005.
Katherine Zavala, Program Manager
International Development Exchange (IDEX)
Katherinez at idex.org