Convention on Biological Diversity: what is it and why do we participate?

This is the first in a series of blogs about the participation of CAGJ/AGRA Watch in the 2016 United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Cancun, Mexico.

Johanna Lundahl, Heather Day, Simone Adler, and Phil Bereano at the UN Conference on Biodiversity.

By Simone Adler, CAGJ Organizing Director

Food sovereignty ensures that the right to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce the food”

Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007

Small farmers and peasants around the world have a reciprocal relationship with their environments – as stewards of biodiversity, they are also shaped by the natural biodiversity in which they grow food. This is why the global dialogue and decision-making processes around biodiversity necessitate participation from farmers, food sovereignty activists, and advocates for biodiversity protection.

Beginning on Sunday, the United Nations opened the 13th Conference of Parties (COP 13) meetings on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cancun, Mexico. The CBD was signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. To date, there are 196 legally-bound parties (countries) to the CBD. The COP is the governing body of the CBD which meets to review progress, identify new priorities, and potentially make amendments.

The CBD recognizes through international law that conservation of biodiversity is a common concern across nations and for all peoples and ecosystems. In the context of sustainable development, the CBD includes measures for the sustainable use of biological resources and includes protection of all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources. Additionally, the CBD address traditional knowledge as important to conserving genetic resources. As a global instrument for national strategies around conservation and sustainability, the CBD has three main objectives:

  • The conservation of biological diversity
  • The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity
  • The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

In 2003, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety went into effect as a supplemental protocol to the CBD. The Biosafety Protocol addresses the risks of trans-boundary movement of biotechnology and genetically modified organisms and the possible adverse effects to human health and conservation of biodiversity. Continue reading “Convention on Biological Diversity: what is it and why do we participate?”

The Making of Farmer-Consumers

Farming is production at its most fundamental. Today it is often claimed that the agricultural revolution was humanity’s most transformative innovation. And whether you see the first seed sown as our original sin or as the beginning of civilization there is little debate over one fact: farming irreversibly influenced the fate of humanity. It was the prerequisite for the growth of cities, the division of labor, and for so much subsequent history.

Farming is also human agency at its most unadulterated. The knowledge acquired by the world’s agriculturalists—how to harness the powers of nature for our nourishment, how to select and save the best seed for the following year, how to foster fertile soil and channel life-giving water to crops—all this became vital and empowering. With the development of farming, humans became active agents on this earth in new, more powerful ways than ever before.

Historically, food production has been the source of most subsequent forms of production: without farming there would be no freedom from the incessant search for food; there would little art or architecture, no surplus to feed doctors, politicians, and teachers. Even today, with a diminishing portion of the world’s population involved in farming, most within the development community agree that a robust farming sector is almost always necessary for sustained economic growth.

And yet many of the same politicians and development economists who acknowledge the importance of a sustainable agricultural sector also treat farming merely as a means to industrial ends. Agriculture becomes the slave of industry, exploited to feed the voracious appetite of urban factories with raw materials, financial capital, and displaced farmers themselves. In this model, it is often forgotten that farming is the source of nourishment for each and every human body; it is the essence of production and not merely a tool for capital accumulation.

It is strange then that modern farmers—the archetypal producers—have been reduced by the economic and technological hegemony of agribusiness to the status of consumers. The past century has witnessed a steady penetration of farming by capital—formerly self-reliant farmers coaxed and pressured into purchasing expensive inputs such as fertilizer and seed held by an increasingly small number of transnational corporations. This capital-intensive agriculture leads to a vicious cycle of debt and dependency from which it is difficult to escape. Today, food producers at all points along the spectrum, from large poultry farmers in America to small potato farmers in the Andes, have been significantly disempowered by corporate heavyweights.

Agribusiness has long sought to consolidate corporate power over agriculture, gaining ground with hybrid seeds and chemical inputs manufactured during the mid 20th century. The most recent way in which these companies reduce food producers to consumers is through genetically engineered (GE) seed. As the promoters of this technology are eager to point out, humans have been manipulating seed for millennia, selecting desired characteristics and bringing these forward for the next generation. However, these corporations fail to acknowledge that there is a crucial difference with GE: this seed manipulation takes place not by farmers on the land but instead by scientists in the lab. These companies, moreover, appropriate seed developed by farmers over thousands of years and then ‘improve’, patent, and sell it back to the same farmers as an original product, claiming sole authorship. Labeled biopiracy by critics of GE, it is an action that clearly illustrates the dynamic between seed corporations and farmers.

Philanthropies and their private sector partners are also seizing on the growing hunger and climate crisis to push GE on small farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa. This ostensibly well-meaning effort to foster development is based on several questionable practices and assumptions including a failure to acknowledge the deleterious history of farmer debt and dispossession, environmental degradation, and social stratification that has long accompanied this capital-intensive agricultural paradigm.

The word ‘farm’ comes from the Proto-Germanic word ferhwo meaning ‘life force’ or ‘being’ and is related to the Old English feorh meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘life.’ Etymologically this reflects the vital place of farming as a source of human productivity. Yet today, in a global economy geared towards limitless growth, consumption is king and even farmers, the original producers, are rendered sterile, manipulated into becoming consumers on their own fertile lands.