Agri-pact unlikely to bear fruit for UN

Agri-pact unlikely to bear fruit for UN

The newly developed partnership between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the global agrochemical industry should be a cause for great concern. The collaboration shows the industry's tentacles reach deep even into organisations whose job it should be to insist upon rigorous standards and practices within the global food supply chain, both in terms of health and ethics.

Disappointed, hundreds of civil groups and representatives of indigenous peoples delivered a letter to the Rome-based United Nations agency (FAO) and its Director-General Qu Dongyu, urging it to abandon its plan to adopt closer ties with a body representing the interests of some of the biggest players in the agricultural chemical industry.

While CropLife International, which represents what it calls "the plant science industry", and has even been referred to in this newspaper somewhat euphemistically as "a global non-profit supported by agrochemical companies among others", there should be no doubt about where its priorities lie. In Thailand, the regional CropLife office last year made a big effort to lobby the Prayut Chan-o-cha government to delay a ban on three extremely toxic chemicals -- paraquat, chlorpyrifos and glyphosate -- initially set for Dec 1 last year. The Thai authorities yielded to the demand, postponing the ban to June 1 this year and exempting glyphosate, a herbicide over which there have been tens of thousands of lawsuits in the US from people alleging it causes cancer.

Among CropLife's members are BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, FMC and Syngenta, which make more than a third of their sales income from highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), the type the trio initially proposed for banning in Thailand belong to.

In fact, the sector as a whole rakes in an even greater proportion of its earnings in the developing world, where a combination of ignorance and desperation make their chemical quick-fixes an enticing and seemingly cost-effective solution to structural problems needing more than the band-aid of a lorry-load of pesticides.

Thursday's letter was co-sponsored by a collective of global action groups and health professionals too long to list, with a representative of the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific emphasising that these chemicals, which are predominant in many poorer nations' farming industries, "pose deadly obstacles to the urgently needed transition to innovative, knowledge-intensive ecological approaches to farming".

Indeed, the announcement of the agreement at the beginning of October was full of the kind of wordy guff one would expect from an alliance between two parties whose ultimate aims should be close to diametrically opposed. From talk of a desire to "strengthen commitment to promote agri-food systems transformation" to claiming that "digitalisation is a real engine to transform agri-food systems", one can only wonder exactly what "practical know-how" this collaboration has that will benefit the hundreds of thousands of hardworking farmers, fisherfolk, agricultural workers and other communities for whom the term "4.0" is more likely to be understood as a time of day than a tangible step towards more sustainable farming practices.

After a recent study highlighted the disparity in the proportion of sales its members make in poorer nations compared to richer ones, a spokesman for CropLife maintained that its multinational sponsors back the [voluntary] FAO International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management and "support countries to identify, and if necessary, remove HHPs from their markets", yet upon request not one of either CropLife International or its members responded to a request for an example of the voluntary removal of an HHP from a market.

Indeed, the pressure levied upon the Thai government since the plan to ban paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos was announced has been both persistent and multi-faceted. From the farmers themselves, for whom feeding their families is often of more immediate concern than the environment to the US President Donald Trump's decision to suspend US$1.3 billion (39.2 billion baht) in trade preferences raising the suspicion that it was, at least in part, retaliation for the ban, attempts were made to curtail the plan at every juncture. It is to the country's credit that only glyphosate is still in use, while the other two chemicals, whose health effects include kidney failure, heart failure, and oesophagal strictures, remain forbidden. For now.

While a certain amount of liaising with these companies is clearly necessary as part of a holistic strategy to move towards sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, the organisation risks losing the trust of those very farmers and communities it must encourage to rethink their reliance on chemicals.

As urged, Mr Qu must take a step back from the agreement and ponder the fact that the accusation that it is "inappropriate and directly undermines FAO's goals of supporting food systems that are healthy, resilient and productive" probably bears up to scrutiny.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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