Oxfam's Open Letter to Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
A-60, Hauz Khas, New Delhi – 110 017, India.
Fax: 0091 11 6856795
9 November 1999
Dear Vandana Shiva
Re Oxfam GB's policy position on GM crops
Our friends in Oxfam Canada have passed on to us your open letter. While we are only too happy to discuss these issues with an expert like yourself it might have been useful if you had contacted us directly before sending a letter to so many people.
We think that there is only a minor difference of opinion between yourself and Oxfam GB. In our paper we call for a moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops because of the enormous health, environmental and socio-economic risks to poor farmers, consumers and developing countries. However, before completely shutting the door we believe further research is needed to establish the full risks and potential of genetic modification of crops for poor farmers and for consumers. We really don't feel that it is fair to suggest that our position amounts to risking "betraying the South, the poor and food security objectives".
1. Our position is in our view entirely consistent with that of the UK Freeze Campaign and international calls for extreme caution with biotechnology. The UK Freeze Campaign calls on the UK government for
"a minimum five year freeze on
•Growing genetically engineered crops for any commercial purpose
•Imports of genetically engineered foods and farm crops
•Patenting of genetic resources for food and farm crops.
The Alliance believes that the following must be sorted out during the Freeze:
•A system where people can exercise their right to choose products free of genetic engineering
•Public involvement in the decisions on the need for and the regulation of genetic engineering
•Prevention of genetic pollution of the environment
•Strict legal liability for adverse effects on people or the environment from the release and marketing of genetically modified organisms
•Independent assessment of the implications of patenting genetic resources
•Independent assessment of the social and economic impact of genetic engineering on farmers"
These calls were and are echoed across the world, and indeed several of our partners have developed similar positions. Oxfam GB did not immediately sign up to this campaign whilst many others did, which was mainly because we were worried to have our position dominated by Northern consumer concerns instead of those of small holder farmers and Third World consumers. We looked very carefully at the issues, consulted widely, and concluded our internal debates with our public paper. In fact we go further than the UK campaign where we do not call for a five year freeze but for an indefinite freeze of the commercial release of crops, foods and patents, until conditions are met similar to what the UK Freeze Alliance demands, for example legislation regarding liability for adverse effects. We stress the dangers of patenting, WTO regulation (now and in future) and a lack of national regulation for rights of small holder farmers and their potential dependency on very large international companies, apart from consumers the world over. We are of course equally concerned for potential health and environmental impacts of GM crops.
With our paper we believe that we actually support international coalitions and campaigns in defence of the interests of small holder farmers and Third World consumers and hope to contribute to North-South solidarity, and as you put it "be part of the global movement for a sustainable and equitable agriculture".
2. We have not included in our recommendations to decision makers on world trade regulation our concern for the support to ecological farming, although we argue in our recommendations 6, 7 and 8 that farmers' seed saving rights should be protected, the CBD should be signed by all (including the USA), a proper biosafety protocol should be adopted, and multilateral environmental agreements should take precedence over WTO agreements. Furthermore, the paper clearly spells out in section 2.1 our interest in, and the potential of sustainable agriculture. We see that as one of our main arguments against assertions that world hunger can be resolved with GM crops in the control of the private sector, and in favour of extreme caution with genetic modification of crops and their commercial release. We support many partners and coalitions across the world who develop environmentally friendly, humane 'low external input sustainable agriculture' (aka LEISA). It is our common practice to purchase and distribute crop seeds locally for regeneration of agricultural production following disasters, which are indeed generally open pollinated varieties. Furthermore, we are involved in a major internal review and learning exercise of the impacts of our support in this regard. We would very much welcome the research data which you have about the success of ecological agriculture.
3. Your main problem with our paper is clearly our second of eight recommendations, in which we call for cautious support by governments to invest in research of applications of biotechnology that are potentially useful. You write "Oxfam risks betraying the South, the poor and food security objectives by calling for support for promotion of G.M. crops in the South instead of calling for support for ecological and sustainable agriculture which is much better suited to the small farmers in adverse agroecological zones".
We are at risk of entering in a debate where one is either in favour or against biotechnology. We are of the opinion that there are serious dangers implied by the rapid development of genetically modified crops in the hands of large private industries, dangers to public health, the environment and socio-economic relations. That is however not the same as rejecting the potential of all biotechnologies as such (there are many technologies that fall under that term), in particular not the applications that could support small holder farmers, consumers, and that could help local and global food security. We have mentioned nitrogen-fixing, salt resistant crops and enhanced vitamin and mineral levels of foods. We could also have mentioned improved or hybrid high yielding varieties that can be replanted (i.e. that are genetically identical to the mother plant and are reproduced 'by apomixes', without sexual fertilisation). All of those are in our view potentially supportive of sustainable agriculture, even though some may reject those as not entirely natural or 'organic'. We are aware that these potentially positive applications are in their infancy only and can imply similar environmental and health risks as some of the applications favoured by private companies, and therefore we believe that public funding and extreme caution should dominate such research and development. We do not suggest that public money should be diverted away from research and development of sustainable farming technology, on the contrary, we want more publicly funded research to supports that, including biotechnological research.
4. We would very much like to assure you that we call on donor governments to support regulatory systems in developing countries in order to prevent the more risky trials of GM crops to be diverted to developing countries (recommendation 3), and we argue in favour of countries' rights to demand labelling of GM food (recommendation 4). We also argue that the WTO should steer clear of forcing countries to go for patenting of life forms, and instead support their right and ability to regulate farmers' historical rights to seed saving and selection otherwise. We are making these recommendations for example because we are concerned that the international community provides food relief that is free of GM substances, and labelled if it is not (leaving the choice to receiving governments). We do not want double standards for any consumers in North and South, whether they are the urban rich or victims of floods.
We hope that this reply reassures you that Oxfam GB is not 'off course' and that we will continue to support the development and use of technologies that are in the interest of poor farmers and their environments, consumers and developing economies.
For Oxfam GB
Policy Advisor Environment & Development