Report-back on Mexico City Conference on GMOs

By Simone Adler

Phil Bereano, AGRA Watch Member, speaks during the ENSSER conference on Gates and Philanthrocapitalism. (L-R) Phil Bereano, Mariam Mayet of African Center of Biodiversity, Angela Hilbeck of ETH Zurich, and Dr. Oram Arellano, session chair for the conference.

On December 1st and 2nd, AGRA Watch member Phil Bereano and CAGJ Organizing Director Simone Adler joined scientists from around the world for a conference held at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City to present where we are in regards to genetic engineering in agriculture and other fields, where we’ve come, and where we are going. The conference, titled “Taking Stock – 20 Years of GM Crops – 40 Years of ‘Genetic Engineering’” was hosted by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), Third World Network (TWN), the Mexican Union of Scientist Concerned with Society (UCCS), and the Latin American Union of Scientist Concerned with Society and Nature (UCCSNAL).

The two days of presentations (with simultaneous Spanish and English interpretation) were organized on topics ranging from the “human cost of GM crops in South America” to “CRISPR Gene Drives and the implication of extinction technologies and population-scale engineering”, from “the failure of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso” to “legal framework for GMO risk assessment: excluding public science”. AGRA Watch member Phil Bereano gave a presentation entitled “Philanthrocapitalism: the Gates Foundation’s African Programs are not Charity” as part the session “GMOs in Developing Countries”.

Preceding the Conference of Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity and Meeting of the Parties on the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols held in Cancun, this conference presented an opportunity to review and share analysis on issues of concern at COP13 and MOP8 in particular, such as synthetic biology and gene drives.

The report by ENSSER gives a robust summary of the presentations, including Phil’s (see below), and their important analyses.

Presenters and organizers of the ENSSER/TWN/UCCS/UCCSNAL Conference on GM Crops and Genetic Engineering

Official conference description:

“Forty years of genetic engineering (GE) have led to a host of new products and a recent surge in new techniques, but in agriculture and various other fields of application the level of insight into the effects of GE on organisms and ecosystems has progressed much less. The claims about the potential benefits and possibilities of the new techniques sound very much like those made for the current techniques invented in the 1970s and 80s and are equally badly substantiated. However, it is deeply alarming that these claims, as before, still neglect the root causes of the serious problems in agriculture, to which GE offers no solutions. Moreover, the undesired effects of the old and new GE techniques continue to be largely ignored in the commercial projects and applications. The sciences of genetics, evolution and ecology, meanwhile, have progressed to show an amazing network of interlinked and finely tuned molecular, physiological and ecological processes sustaining life on all levels. The insights into these processes show the founding assumption of genetic engineering, that there would be a simple, linear relationship between a deliberate DNA modification and a change in a property of the organism or even a newly created property, to be unreliable and unfit for practical application. Yet the application of GE to agriculture and food continues to be pushed relentlessly by commercial interests and like-minded, affiliated scientists and politicians.

This conference, preceding the biennial Meeting of the Parties (MOP) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, will present scientific analysis and evaluation of the current state of knowledge on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including their impacts on farmers, communities and the environment, also highlighting the uncontrolled spread of transgenes and GMOs. Special attention will be paid to the latest developments of genetic engineering, like genome editing, CRISPR/Cas and gene drives. The necessity, now more than ever, to take the precautionary principle as a guiding principle in GE developments, will pervade the conference.”

ENSSER Report on AGRA Watch Member Phil Bereano’s Presentation:

Phil Bereano (Community Alliance for Global Justice, USA) presented a more comprehensive description of the workings of the Gates Foundation, in the broader context of philanthrocapitalism. This is the use of accumulated wealth (usually gained by avoiding taxes) to further capitalist ideology under the guise of charity. In this capacity, Gates has become the 5th largest donor to African aid, surpassing most nation states.

The Foundation is funding business-oriented, high-input agricultural systems to achieve its goals in Africa, undermining local networks and organisations, as well as community institutions, and further concentrating power in traditional ‘white’ societies. This comes at no particular sacrifice to the Gates Foundation, which has earned more during the years of its existence than it has ever paid out.

Nevertheless, in return Gates gets access to the political halls of power in Africa without having any particular expertise to offer regarding agriculture, poverty alleviation or any other qualifications which would be highly relevant in the field.

The full report can be read online here.  

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