The UN, Biodiversity, & Climate Change

I am in mourning.

A younger, more optimistic me died last week. Not even 50, she was far too young.

As I sat with the governments of the world at UN meetings in Rome, I couldn’t get Midnight Oil’s iconic 1987 song Beds are Burning out of my head, the line ‘how can we sleep while our beds are burning’ playing over and over, drowning out the monotone of the oft-repeated refrain that ‘Canada would like it noted that the guidelines are voluntary’ and ‘specific actions are a matter for national governments’.

I want to apologise to my children for the way the generations before them have trashed the planet they need to live on – we are leaving them an inheritance of climate chaos and almost certain social collapse globally. And we’ve known we were spending the resources they’ve loaned us for decades, but our governments have continually bowed at the altar of industry, accepting tithes to retain their seculo-papal power.

I want to fall to my knees, weep, wail, tear my hair out, and retreat to a nunnery. I want to drought proof our farm and close the gate. I want to open the gate and let them all come. I want to stand on every stage and in every screen and shout ‘WAKE UP! IT’S TOO LATE! WAKE UP! IT CAN’T BE TOO LATE!’ I want to believe it’s not too late, I know it’s too little, too late.

Over a week of mind-numbing bureaucratic tedium in a theatre in the house of the dead – the mausoleum that is the buildings of the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) – we heard over and over that the FAO and its committees know very well and in fine detail what has caused and is causing climate change and loss of biodiversity.

We heard the world’s most powerful highly developed nations shrug off responsibility and distract the audience with insistence on a word change here, a denial of FAO’s role there, oh, and ‘we don’t support monitoring’ of their activities by the FAO. The US nasally reminds us (as if we could forget) that ‘we agree with Canada.’ Argentina and Brazil form their own bloc – two of the south’s biggest industrial ag countries – sometimes agreeing with their North American counterparts, sometimes not. It’s hard to get their measure – these major global exporters of soy, wheat, maize, sugarcane, and beef have some of the language of farmers’ rights and biodiversity loss, but are also averse to scrutiny and vocal supporters of further developments in biotechnology for agriculture.

The meeting was the Seventeenth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Members of the secretariat noted that in the past two years they have ‘firmly planted biodiversity in the global agenda’, and that ‘the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 13th Conference of the Parties (COP) heralded a reinvigorated relationship with FAO, marking the beginning of a new era of synergies between agriculture and the environment.’ This hopeful note was for many of us the first stroke in a week of a thousand deaths, as senior bureaucrats repeatedly ‘heralded’ the realisation of things we learned in primary school.

We heard of their revolutionary work to ‘mainstream biodiversity’ – that awkward, outcast kid who has trouble getting along with all the homogenous blonde little Johnnies in her class, with her chemical-free, whole foods diet, and the rich microbiome helping her digest her morning glass of raw milk. That’s right – we’re so far down the industrial path that we now need the UN to teach us how to ‘mainstream’ biodiversity back into agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.

Some of my notes from the meeting read more like the lines from Idiocracy, where characters from the past have to teach our future selves not to put a Gatorade-like product on plants. It’s worth quoting the movie at length here to give you a better sense of where I just was.

Joe: For the last time, I’m pretty sure what’s killing the crops is this Brawndo stuff. 

Secretary of State: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes. 

Attorney General: So wait a minute. What you’re saying is that you want us to put water on the crops. 

Joe: Yes. 

Attorney General: Water. Like out of the toilet? 

Joe: Well, I mean, it doesn’t have to be out of the toilet, but, yeah, that’s the idea. 

Secretary of State: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. 

Attorney General: It’s got electrolytes. 

Joe: Okay, look. The plants aren’t growing, so I’m pretty sure that the Brawndo’s not working. Now, I’m no botanist, but I do know that if you put water on plants, they grow. 

Secretary of Energy: Well, I’ve never seen no plants grow out of no toilet. 

Secretary of State: Hey, that’s good. You sure you ain’t the smartest guy in the world? 

Joe: Okay, look. You wanna solve this problem. I wanna get my pardon. So why don’t we just try it, okay, and not worry about what plants crave? 

Attorney General: Brawndo’s got what plants crave. 

Secretary of Energy: Yeah, it’s got electrolytes. 

Joe: What are electrolytes? Do you even know? 

Secretary of State: It’s what they use to make Brawndo. 

Joe: Yeah, but why do they use them to make Brawndo? 

Secretary of Defense: ‘Cause Brawndo’s got electrolytes.

I feel for the FAO staff at these meetings. Their website admonishes us to ‘eat local’ and ‘diversify your diet’, noting as per the Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food & Agriculture’s findings released at the meetings, we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

Just nine crops account for 66% of total crop production. Nine. Crops.

26% of livestock breeds are threatened with extinction. Bees and other pollinators are dying. The FAO are clear on the facts that lay before us, and they’re clear that the worst contributor to this dismal outlook is industrial agriculture. The report tells us that changes in land and water use and management are the biggest offenders, with de-forestation to clear the way for industrial monocultures – much of which is fed to animals in intensive livestock systems – leading our demise.

While the FAO knows WTF is wrong, governments look side-eyed at each other and angle for a bigger piece of the world’s shrinking genetic pie. They have made huge advances in recent decades on digital sequencing information (DSI, aka genetic sequencing data or ‘de-materialised genetic resources’). We heard from an FAO senior staffer that where the human genome originally cost USD $100 million to sequence, it can now be done for just $600. What are the real implications for this?

Although DSI is a de-materialised form of genetic data, it can be used to reproduce its source synthetically in the lab. Practically speaking, this means that anything that has been sequenced is available to corporations to reproduce, ‘improve’, and you guessed it, patent. They can take peasant seeds, re-fashion them as they like to be pesticide resistant or to increase yield, patent them and pocket the profits. Meanwhile, the original custodians of these seeds – the Indigenous Peoples, peasants, and small-scale farmers of the world, get nothing for their centuries and millennia of toil that made these seeds available in the first place.

Realising the inequity of this situation, the UN put in place measures to try to ensure access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing (ABS) of developments of these resources by the world’s colonisers of seed. You can see how well that is going in my account of last year’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture on farmers’ rights. Spoiler: not so well.

Here we have two key issues battling for our attention – DSI and ABS – and they are deeply intertwined as physical seeds become irrelevant when multinational corporations like Monsanto-Bayer and Syngenta sequence them, and countries like the USA and Canada sit in Rome and assert that they ‘do not support monitoring or evaluation of countries’ implementation of ABS’, and insist that ‘DSI is separate from ABS’. Still with me?

In case there’s a risk that I’ve misinterpreted the motives of the north Americans, let me highlight a significant revision they demanded in the Commission’s Multi-Year Program of Work, changing the wording on the Commission’s plan for ‘biotechnologies’ in 2021 and 2025 from ‘Review of the development of biotechnologies and their potential impact on the conservation and sustainable utilisation of GRFA (genetic resources for food & ag) to ‘Review of the work on biotechnologies for the conservation and sustainable use of GRFA’. That’s right – they don’t want the Commission to review the impact of biotech on genetic resources – they’ve erased that potential and codified the notion that biotech is ‘for conservation and sustainable use’.

Next on the agenda, the Commission ‘requested FAO to prepare a scoping study on the role of GRFA in adaptation and mitigation of climate change, taking into account the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special reports on terrestrial and marine systems…’ A scoping study. And if they determine that the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture are ‘pertinent’, then the working groups should provide guidance to the Commission on preparation of a ‘global country-driven assessment for review […] and consideration by the Commission in this next Session’ (in 2021).

We don’t need to scope a study on the importance of biodiversity – we don’t even need another study to tell us what we already understand quite well. The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report spells it out and underscores the urgency of the problems of rapid biodiversity loss. Sure, keep studying the particularities of the problems, but meanwhile, STOP CUTTING DOWN FORESTS IMMEDIATELY.

IPC made an intervention on the agenda item on biodiversity and climate change, virtually begging the governments to act more swiftly to slow the terrible impacts of climate change already felt in Australia and across the globe. While we were congratulated by a number of non-state actors and a handful of state representatives from the global south, I fear that too many vested interests cotton the ears of most in the global north.

There were lengthy deliberations on the role of aquatic, animal, and forestry genetic resources for food and agriculture, punctuated with the same heel digging from North and South America’s wealthiest nations, hand wringing from Africa’s poorest, and calls for more and stronger action from countries like Ecuador and Iran. Aside from Japan’s regular alignment with the North Americans, Asia was remarkably reserved on most topics.

Perhaps this line from our intervention on animal genetic resources most succinctly highlights the interrelationships between all plants, animals, and soil that have been segmented by much of the work in governmental fora:

‘De-forestation is largely driven by industrial livestock agriculture as trees are felled to make room for monocultures of soy, corn, and other grains to be fed to animals in intensive production models. Both intensive industrial livestock production and monocultures of grain are significant contributors to loss of biodiversity and polluters of waterways, thereby also contributing to the loss of biodiversity in terrestrial and marine waters.’

Sadly, while these realities of the impact of industrial agriculture are well known, reported on, and provided the sub-text for the entire week of the Commission’s meetings, there was a unified reluctance to speak on the specificities of the problems, which might have required the Commission to debate the specificities of the solutions.

In the agenda item on micro-organisms and pollinators, peasant farmer and long-term activist Guy Kastler of Confédération Paysanne in France made this excellent intervention. While the bees die and human health suffers from the orthodoxy of sterility that is killing our own microbiomes, governments seemed most interested in working on the micro-organisms in the rumen of cattle to aid their digestion of grain in intensive livestock systems.

Aligned with work already undertaken by the FAO, the IPC recommended very specific urgent action by all governments of the world to address practices that are undermining the sustainability of food and agricultural production, including but not limited to:

  • pesticide use;
  • synthetic fertiliser use;
  • repeated tilling of soils;
  • intensive livestock production;
  • over-grazing;
  • de-forestation; and
  • over-fishing & intensive aquaculture.

We also urged member states to join the FAO in its efforts to promote the use of production models and management practices that promote and preserve biodiversity, such as agroecology, including approaches that integrate biodiverse forestry practices such as agrosilviculture, agrisilvipasture, and silvopastoral systems; and artisanal and small-scale fisheries.

Finally, we supported the Commission’s plan to facilitate the participation of relevant stakeholders in decision-making, and asked that where they have not done so already, the Commission and its member states put in place frameworks that effectively respect, preserve, and maintain knowledges, innovations, practices, and rights of indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, fishers, and fish workers, and local communities, in particular assuring farmers’ rights as per the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture.  

Our final words to the Commission were:

We understand that governments are reliant on, responsive to, and at times answerable to the various industries of your nations. But no industry – including commodity agriculture – should ever have unfettered power to act against the public good. We come here as representatives of the peoples of the world, and ask that you consider your people’s interests above all. The time for decisive action to end destructive industrial agricultural practices was fifty years ago. The time for action is now.

Now it’s time to pick myself up and continue to be active in my own optimism – to be an active optimist. Our children’s future depends on us.  

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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