Pat Roy Mooney

on .

(ETC Group, Co-founder and Executive Drector
Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the world has been hit by a dangerous loss of “agricultural biodiversity”, both in terms of species (inter-species biodiversity) and existing varieties within the same species (intra-species biodiversity). One of the main driving factors of such a dangerous phenomenon is the increasing diffusion of industrial practices in agriculture. In fact, the use of a limited number of uniformed agricultural plant species, in defense of an industrialized and centralized high yield agricultural model, has led to a fatal genetic flattening in the seeds. However, several studies show that this process can’t ensure the genetic diversity the agricultural system need in order to address the following future challenges: climate change, population increase, resistance to new diseases and insects.  Why is biodiversity so important for our planet? Why the role of seeds (and so the debate on them) is so crucial for our future? And why the current international regulatory framework on the market of seed is dangerous for biodiversity and the survival of small farmers? Are big corporations really better than small farmers? Pat Roy Mooney, ETC Group’s executive director and  one of the greatest experts of agricultural biodiversity, answered to those and other questions.
Pat Roy Mooney: Pat Mooney has more than a four decades experience working in international civil societies, first addressing aid and development issues and then focusing on food, agriculture and commodity trade. In 1977, together with Cary Fowler and Hope Shand, Mooney co-founded the “RAFI” (Rural Advancement Fund International, renamed ETC Group in 2001). He received “The Right Livelihood Award” (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") in the Swedish Parliament in 1985 and “The Pearson Peace Prize” from Canada's Governor General in 1998. He has also received the American "Giraffe Award", given to people "who stick their necks out." Pat Mooney is the author or co-author of several books on biotechnology and biodiversity; One of his most important publications is “Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity”. He is widely regarded as an authority on the following issues: global governance, corporate concentration, intellectual property monopoly, plant genetic resources and agricultural biodiversity.
ETC Group: the ETC Group  is a small international  civil society organization which works to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. ETC Group investigates ecological erosion (including the erosion of cultures and human rights), the development of new technologies and monitor global governance issues, including corporate concentration and trade in technologies. It operates at the global political level and works closely with partner civil society organizations and social movements, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

INTERVIEW - (May 2014)
The interview was realized in May 2014 and published in July 2014 - (Original Interview in English)
Subject: Biodiversity - seeds and biodiversity, the role of agribusiness corporations, future scenarios for agriculture

Question 1: You are one of the co-founders of the “ETC Group”.  Can you explain what is ETC Group’s mission, what are the topics it is currently more focusing on, and, finally, in which way it carries out its mission?

Our experience started back in 1977, with the establishment of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), then renamed ETC Group in 2001. Initially, our organization focused only on the thematic of seeds and on the impact of changes in agro-biodiversity on marginalized peoples, both producers and consumers. More than 30 years later, the ETC Group is still talking about seeds, but the world has changed and, with it, our subjects: new technologies have developed, economies have globalized, multinational companies have expanded their reach, wealth and capital are concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations. In particular, we are giving increasingly attention to the development of new technologies and their impact on the most vulnerable peoples. These new technologies include nanotechnology and synthetic biology (a kind of extreme genetic engineering that can have a serious negative impact on the planet system both in terms of biodiversity and climate change). We substantially carry out our mission in two ways: 1) by producing information (articles and reports) on the subjects we focus on; 2) by collaborating with local civil societies in their fight to protect small farmers and marginalized peoples’ rights.

Question 2
: Now, we are going to talk about “biodiversity” and the role of “seeds” in the agricultural system. First of all, let me start with one of your most important publications: "Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity". It is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive guides on the topic of biodiversity. Could you explain what is biodiversity and why it is so important for our planet to protect the genetic diversity of plants?

Historical episodes and increasing evidences suggest that humanity cannot survive from big global changes (climate, new plant diseases, land erosion and so on) unless we have access to a wide diversity (both in terms of species and varieties) of livestock and plants. In that sense, the most terrifying figure is that 45% of all the private agricultural  research is focused on just one-crop - maize; and that means less access to diversity. Said that, we have a lot of historical examples that prove how dangerous are genetically-narrowed crops. Coming back in Ireland in the 1840-1850s, the entire crop of potato was destroyed by a single disease; 1 million Irish died and 2 million more fled the country; that happened because the crop had a narrow genetic base of potato. There are many other examples: the coffee-based economy in Sri Lanka was practically destroyed by a leaf disease that spread throughout the plantations from the mid 1850's to 1870; in the U.S. in 1970, the Southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) reached epidemic status and destroyed about 15% of the corn belt's crop production. These examples simply show how vulnerable is an agricultural system poor in biodiversity.

Question 3
: Said that. What is, in your opinion, the state of biodiversity around the world? What are the countries which are registering the major loss of biodiversity and why?

Well, the widest loss of biodiversity has taken place in Europe and in North America, simply because those are the zones which have experienced the major diffusion of industrial agricultural practices. However,  in my opinion, the biggest threat to biodiversity comes from Central America, Ethiopia and South-East Asia. These countries are strongly threaten by the diffusion of industrial agricultural practices and Genetically Modified Crops (GMC). It is, in particular, the case of South East Asia, where GM Rice is about to be introduced commercially; but also Mexico is under the threat of Genetically Modified  maize (GMO).

Question 4
: What about Land Grabbing? Is it contributing to the loss of biodiversity?

I think it will, but is not the main cause! Of course, the Land Grabbing phenomenon (that happens when lands in poor countries are acquired by rich countries or big corporations, often without consulting local peoples) has risen in the past few years; so it and its consequences on local communities must be closely monitored. However, in my opinion, the biggest threat to biodiversity is not Land Grabbing itself, but the intellectual property policies which encourage the diffusion of commercial agricultural varieties and GMOs, included the so called Terminator* crops.

* Terminator technology refers to plants that have been genetically modified to render sterile seeds at harvest – it is also called Genetic Use Restriction Technology or GURTS.

Question 5
: Let’s go on with Biodiversity. What is “The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)” and how does it function?

Signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entered into force on 29 December 1993. It has three main objectives: 1) the conservation of biological diversity; 2) the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; 3) the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. Actually, we initially opposed it, it was  hastily constructed and  fostered the idea of  intellectual property over genetic diversity, favoring big companies and rich countries at the expense of  developing countries and peasant farmers. However, over the time, there has been an improvement in the ways the Convention protects biodiversity: steps have been done in terms of drawing attention on the thematic of biodiversity and on the dangerous role that the use of biotechnologies and GMOs have in agriculture.

Question 6
: Now, let’s talk about the “seed market”.  How has the seed market changed over the past decades?

The seed market has experienced a big process of concentration over the past forty years. Back in the 1970s, no single company had  even 1% of the global commercial seed market and there were over 7 thousand different sources of seeds (public and private) around the world. Today, only 3 companies (Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont) realize 54% of all global seed sales; one, Monsanto, owns 27% of the global market. Moreover, if you look at the top 6 companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, BASF, Bayer, Dow), they not only control 60% of the seed market, but also 95% of the pesticide market. Why those companies have experienced such an increase in their market share? First of all they have a big influence on politics and governments. So, national and international laws (included the UPOV convention) strongly support them in their efforts in gaining control over the food system; in particular, the regulatory framework on the  intellectual property rights over plant varieties favors the diffusion of technologies that, because of the big cost in research, can be developed only by big corporations.

Question 7
: You have just mentioned the “UPOV”, which represents the international regulatory framework on the production, sharing and commercialization of seeds. Can you explain how does it work and what are its main implications for big corporations, small farmers and the agricultural system as a whole?

The UPOV (Union internationale pour la Protection des Obtentions Végétales) is an international convention signed by 71 countries for the protection of new plant varieties, by a system of “property rights”. Since its birth in 1961, the UPOV has established the following goals: 1) increase genetic diversity; 2) give farmers more opportunities; 3) increase plant breeding; 4) bring in new species in the food system; 5) end the world hunger. Fifty years later, none of these goals have been achieved. It is true, since the 1960s, the commercial seed sector has produced 80 thousand unique varieties under the intellectual property protection; but “59% of these new varieties are flowers and other non-food plants.” Actually, if you look at the food sector, not a single new species has been introduced in all the period considered. On the other hand, in the same period, despite market difficulties, peasant farmers have produced “2.1 million plant varieties” and these varieties are in 7 thousand different species.  They have added diversity to the food system. In conclusion, the UPOV convention is promoting a wrong system, a system based on the culture of intellectual property rights, monopolization of the food  supply chain and the marginalization of the real source of diversity which is represented by peasant farmers.

Question 8
: Many studies, media-Reports and documentaries suggests that, with the monopolization of the seed market by big corporations and the industrialization of agriculture, the cost of production (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, machineries) for small peasants is becoming unsustainable, to the point that the number of suicides among small farmers has drastically increased in the past few years, especially in India. Are the conditions for small farmers really worsening? Are the governments and policy makers seriously considering that phenomenon? What they should do?

Without doubt, small farmers, over the past 40 years, have experienced a strong worsening in their economic conditions. There are many causes behind that: 1) the monopolization of the seed market and the food system (so the increased power of big corporations at the expense of small farmers); 2) Land Grabbing (so peasant local farmers lose access to their land); 3) worsening market conditions. Those events have affected almost equally all parts of the world; however, the reactions from small farmers are different and depend on the country’s culture: in some countries, like India, many farmers have opted for the suicide; in other countries, peoples prefer to fight for the protection of their rights.
What are doing governments? I don’t think governments are protecting the interests of small farmers. “What governments really want is to get people off the land”: many studies suggest that by 2050, at least 77% of the world population will be living in cities. So governments are acting in the opposite way. Is it the right strategy? I don’t think so. As I said before, small farmers represent the only solution for the future challenges we are going to face and, for this reason, should be supported.

Question 9
: In 2013 ETC Group published an interesting Report on the importance of preserving the practice of free sharing of seeds among farmers: “Tunis 2013: If we rely on corporate seed, we lose food sovereignty”. What is “Food Sovereignty“and why the use of corporate seeds means a loss in food sovereignty? Could a farmer use non-patent seeds for commercial or non-commercial purposes?

“Food Sovereignty” is a moving definition. It has become wider and stronger since the international farmers organization “Via Campesina” first introduced it. “Food Sovereignty”, first of all, means putting food at the center of any policy on “planet sustainability”. It advocates for a stronger relationship between farmers and consumers, as well as farmers and land (and, more in general, natural resources); Although Via Campesina has done an amazing job in order to expand the concept around the world, it is sometimes still used in a distorted way by some international organizations and politicians. Food Sovereignty is closely linked to the thematic of seeds, as, among the agricultural factors (seeds, land and water), seeds are the easiest factor to monopolize. The monopolization of the seed market means less Food Sovereignty.
In some countries a farmer is allowed “theoretically” to use non-patent seeds. For example, in Canada and many parts of Europe, farmers “can” use non-patent seeds, but, in reality, they don’t: in the markets only patent-seeds are sold and sometimes there are only Genetically Modified seeds.

Question 10
: ETC Group is closely monitoring the state of the “2007 bill” in the Brazilian Congress aimed at ending Brazil’s ban on Terminator seeds (see Suicide at the Carnaval? Terminator is back in the Brazilian Congress). Why stopping this Bill is so important for the global agricultural system?

Well, back in 2006, there was a big effort by big multinationals to overturn the moratorium of the United Nations on terminator seeds in place since 2000. Some organizations, including the ETC Group. struggled against that attempt. In that struggle, we were supported by the Brazilian government which, in 2007, introduced a legislation which banned the use of Terminator seeds in Brazil. Now, Brazil, in order to defend its international reputation, is trying to allow the use of Terminator seeds in its country. Our concern is that the bill (aiming at ending the ban) can pass in a time between July 2014 (when the world cup will be taking place) and October 2014 (during the Brazilian elections); so the meeting on the Biodiversity Convention expected to be held soon after in Korea would represent the occasion for Brazilian diplomats to change the terms of the U.N. Moratorium on Terminator seeds in order to make their bill respectful of it. In that perspective Brazil will open the doors to allow the use of Terminator seeds around the world. This is the real threat!

Question 11
: In general, what is the current state of GMOs in the world? Why GMOs are so dangerous?

There are 27-28 countries around the world which, under certain conditions, allow the use of GMOs. However GMOs, since their introduction about 20 years ago, haven’t had the success big companies hoped: they include only few kind of crops (substantially maize, soybean and canola) and haven’t expanded in many countries. One of the main reasons behind their flop is their enormous cost. The introduction of a GMO variety could cost about 136 million dollars to a company, while the introduction of a conventional variety on average costs only 1 million dollars.
GMOs are very dangerous for two main reasons: 1) They allow companies to monopolize the seed market; 2) it is a technology badly constructed: 20 years ago  little startup companies, pressed by  venture capitalists, introduced a very immature technology into the market without a real preparation. However, now the biggest threat to the agricultural system doesn’t come from GMOs themselves; it comes from technologies similar to GMOs, to which media don’t give enough attention, but are as dangerous as GMOs for both consumers and the entire agricultural system as a whole.

Question 12
: In September 2013, ETC Group published a study “Who Will Feed Us? The Industrial Food Chain or the Peasant Food Webs?”,  which demonstrated that the Industrial Food Chain uses 70% of the world’s agricultural resources to produce just 30% of our global supplies, while the Peasant Food Web provides 70% of the global food supply, using only 30% of agricultural resources. So, what is the real usefulness of the industrial food chain? And what we really need to feed the growing population around the world and reduce the impact of the agricultural system on climate change?

The industrial food chain is very expansive and causes a big waste of money: it has a retail food bill of roughly 8 trillion dollar per year. Moreover, per every dollar we spend (buying and using food), we spend another 50 cents to mitigate the damages caused by using its food. It is not only a question of money: from “the field to the fork”, about 50%* of the food produced is wasted; finally, it’s making rich societies obese and sick! It is difficult to imagine a system worse than this one; it is simply a disaster! We need to re-gain control over our food system. We have to support peasant farmers which represents the only system able to feed the entire world and, in particular, poor and hungry peoples. Peasant farmers’ ecological footprint is lower than the industrial system’s one: As showed in the study cited above, they produce more food with less resources, they consume less water and energy and are more flexible.

*The standard estimate of wasted food ranges between 33% and 40% without taking into account food wasted because of overconsumption. If you accept that somewhere between 15% and 25% of food consumed in industrialized countries is wasted because it is over-consumed, then it is not hard to boost the total food loss from 40% to around 50%.

Question 15
: Summing up, in the last decades the power of big agricultural corporations in the world has increased, and, with it, the monopolization and industrialization of many phases of the global food supply chain; at the same time, small farmers are losing power and this is a serious threat for preserving a sustainable agricultural system. What is, in your opinion, the future scenario for the agricultural system, and what are the main factors and trends this scenario depends on?

In my opinion, there are substantially two scenarios:
1)      The non-desirable scenario: this is the scenario favored by most governments and U.N. agencies. It prioritizes the industrialized food system. According to them, food production must be increased by 50% between now and 2050; access to energy and water must be increased by 70% in the same period; finally, meat and dairy consumption must be increased by 70% (and that would be catastrophic in terms of health, ecological footprint, and climate change). In my opinion, these targets are simply impossible to achieve, and any efforts to do it will worsen our world ecosystem.
2)      The desirable scenario: it is the only chance we have in order to face the ecological crisis as well as reduce the world hunger. It means: supporting peasant farmers and increasing their access to lands and diversify; having a more decentralized system, where peasant farmers can sell directly their products to consumers. It is a system where energy needs and the use of chemicals and fertilizers are drastically reduced.
In conclusion, “we have two possible scenarios, but we have only one choice: the second one!”

Interview on YouTube