Tag: FAO

Conflict between developed and less developed countries on plant genetic resources

The following is an exerpt from ‘Intellectual Property in Global Governance: A Development Question’ by Chidi Oguamanam, published by Routledge, 2012.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the UN specialized agency that “leads international efforts to defeat hunger”. Created in 1945, the same year as the UN, the FAO was critical in the international initiative to address post-war global hunger. The FAO’s functions span the provision of technical, scientific, educational, and research support with the aim of improving conservation of natural resources, global nutrition, food and agricultural practices, and the overall marketing and distribution of food and agricultural products. The FAO functions to influence national and international action toward “the adoption of international policies with respect to agricultural commodity arrangements”. Perhaps more importantly, the FAO is a putatively neutral forum where both less developed and developed nations interact and negotiate and debate policies pertaining to agriculture, food production and global hunger. In this regard, the FAO has been described as “a flashpoint of conflict between developed countries of the northern hemisphere and the developing countries of the southern hemisphere regarding appropriation, exploitation, and proper legal treatment of plant genetic resources”.

The conflict between developed and less developed countries on plant genetic resources is driven by a number of interrelated factors. The first is a shared concern over global genetic erosion and the depletion of agricultural plant genetic resources. In the past century, losses of varieties of several major crops are estimated at 80-90%… The second reason for the north-south conflict over plant genetic resources is the suspicion of the underlying motives of industrialized countries for establishing ex situ gene banks for the conservation of the world’s priciest genetic resources, most of which were from the global south, under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In regard to the suspicion surrounding CGIAR, there is continued skepticism in less developed countries over the role of the World Bank as CGIAR’s chief sponsor and in regard to the unresolved issue of intellectual property arising from dealings in genetic materials in CGIAR and in other public gene banks. Also, there is an impression in some quarters that CGIAR and other public gene banks were perspicaciously set up by industrialized countries not necessarily as a conservation strategy but as a way to ensure control and a continued flow of the south’s genetic resources to the north, which could not be guaranteed in the postcolonial era… with the decline of the empire system governments lacked the military presence and legal authority to compel [the new] sovereign nations to yield valuable genetic resources. After all, under the colonial arrangement, the funneling of genetic resources was a brazen and, some would argue, “legitimate” activity given that colonial outposts of the south were practical extensions of empire. Under this theory, the formal end of colonialism necessitated the creation of a platform for legitimate funneling of less developed countries’ genetic resources by hitherto colonial interests.

Taking advantage of prevailing intellectual property regimes… seed breeding and allied agro-tech corporations in the North… continued to exploit publicly held plant genetic resources as well as those in CGIAR ex situ seed banks, obtaining intellectual property rights. They are able to effectively exclude natural and original suppliers of those plant genetic resources from benefiting from the resulting innovation… in the supplying communities, there was virtually no mechanism for protecting farmers’ valuable knowledge or for rewarding their contributions in the generation of important plant genetic resources which are the mainstay of modern entrepreneurial agricultural biotechnology.

– Exerpted from ‘Intellectual Property in Global Governance: A Development Question’ by Chidi Oguamanam, published by Routledge, 2012.


Miscounting the hungry

Every year, around this time, the F.A.O. (the Food and Agriculture Organisation, an agency of the United Nations) publishes its report on hunger — or, as it is now called, “food insecurity.” What most people remember are the numbers: whether hunger went up or down, and by how much. But hunger statistics are confusing. It is very hard to calculate with precision how many men and women do not eat enough.

The F.A.O. makes an effort: by studying agricultural inventories; food imports and exports; the local uses of food; economic hardship and social inequality. From there it determines the estimated availability of food per capita. The difference between required and available calories gives the F.A.O. its number of undernourished people. This sounds like a sensible method, but it is entirely malleable. And so its results can be adjusted according to the needs of the moment.

It’s a long story. At the World Food Conference in Rome, in 1974, when Henry A. Kissinger famously stated that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry,” F.A.O. experts estimated that the number of hungry people in developing regions was close to 460 million… In a 1992 report, the F.A.O. stated that there were 786 million hungry people in 1988-90. It was a dramatic increase, a serious blow.

In that report, the F.A.O. revised its previous calculations, saying that its statistical method had been wrong. Now, the F.A.O.’s experts said, they believed that in 1970 there weren’t 460 million hungry people in the developing world, but more than twice that number, 941 million. This, in turn, allowed them to say that the 1989 figure of 786 million did not represent a dramatic increase but, in fact, a decrease of 155 million: quite an achievement.

The changes kept coming…

We know that there is nothing more variable than the past, but it is unusual to watch it changing so fast, so visibly. You could say they are just numbers, abstractions; they wouldn’t really matter much if they were just bad propaganda figures. The problem is that they are, in fact, canonical figures: the kind that are used to determine funds and priorities.

This is not conscious corruption. It’s a symptom of an institutional culture that has to prove it is achieving important progress. The 1990 change justifies the United Nations’ efforts and jobs, as much as it quiets our consciences.

– Excerpted from the article Counting the hungry by Martín Caparrós.

A science, a set of practices, and a social movement for distributive and procedural justice

This Symposium comes at an opportune time as climate change, continued food insecurity and rural poverty present myriad challenges to sustainability. Agroecology, especially when paired with the developing principles of food sovereignty and food justice, offers opportunities to address all of these problems to an extent not matched by other approaches or proposals.

[Agroecology is] a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production. Agroecology integrates multiple fields into a unique “trans-discipline”, drawing on ecology, agronomy, political economy, and sociology, among other fields. It can be considered a science, a set of practices, and a social movement for distributive and procedural justice. In fact, without these elements of justice—which are often lacking in other approaches (for example, “climate-smart agriculture” or “sustainable intensification”)—no approach can be scientifically assessed as “sustainable” according to most established definitions of sustainability. The procedural justice element has been associated with the growing conceptualization of and movement for “food sovereignty”—the right for people to design and decide on the shape of their own food system within their own localities, to the maximum extent practicable, with the maximum possible participation.

We therefore call upon FAO member states and the international community to build upon the proceedings of this Symposium in order to launch a UN-system wide initative on agroecology as the central strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience in the face of water crises: an initiative centered around social, cultural, and food sovereignty issues in agriculture and food systems.

– Exerpted from Scientists’ Support Letter for the International Symposium on Agroecology, 18–19 September, 2014