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29 Jan, 2004

World Social Forum 2004 Report 3: The Future Of Food And Water

Do you know that more money is spent annually in Europe and the USA on dog and cat food than would be needed to provide access to clean drinking water for all humanity?

Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist to cover the World Social Forum 2004 in Mumbai. Last of three exclusive thought-prompting dispatches on the WSF 2004.

Do you know that more money is spent annually in Europe and the USA on dog and cat food than would be needed to provide access to clean drinking water for all humanity? Is the travel & tourism industry prepared for the upcoming clash between the trend towards health-consciousness and the consequences of genetically modified (GM) foods?

This dispatch contains three reports which explore the Future of Food and Water. The implications are left for readers to decide.




The first is a press release from the just concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, which indicates an acceptance, probably for the first time, that business and political leaders need to work with both religious and civil society leaders to bring stability to an “increasingly complex and inter-related world.” The CEOs also agreed that their ability to foresee and manage risks will be critical for future prosperity.

The second and third reports are from this very same civil society, the World Social Forum (WSF) 2004 in Mumbai. The WSF’s message to the WEF is that directions being pursued by multinational corporations are themselves part of the risk. These include encouraging the use of GM crops and privatising water supply networks.

A clear message goes out: En masse liberalisation and privatisation is NOT the answer, with or without a human face. Indeed, do business and political leaders recognise that their own so-called solutions are part of the problem? If they wish to work with civil society, are they willing to heed the positions of civil society?

As for travel & tourism, has it considered the long-term implications of GM food and privatised water-supply networks? What will be the real cost of both, financial and otherwise? Says the report below, “A new form of colonialism and a new power divide are emerging with respect to water.”

Clearly, these are far more critical issues than privatised airlines and airports. Travel & tourism may well consider them to be too futuristic but there is little doubt they will be upon us, perhaps sooner than we think. It might be better to get some homework done in order to try and influence the outcome than to be influenced by it, and then fret about it, as is usually the case.



Davos, Switzerland 25 January 2004 – Corporate, government and civil society leaders need to establish a more effective framework in order to interpret and manage the risks – and the perceptions of risk – as part of their partnership for prosperity and security for the future. This was one of the conclusions made by the co-chairs of Annual Meeting 2004 at the closing session of the World Economic Forum in Davos following 250 working sessions over five days.

“Are we really seeing the risks that lie ahead?” asked James Schiro, Chief Executive Officer, Zurich Financial Services, Switzerland, as he outlined the principal points that over 2,100 participants from 94 countries, including more than 30 heads of state or government, had focused on at the meeting. These included determining the new risks, how perception of risks has changed, and the new technological tools for anticipating these risks and challenges.

“The way we manage risks is the key to prosperity,” Schiro said. However, he added that society also needs to determine the “right measures and development to anticipate these risks.”

Philippe Bourguignon, Co-Chief Executive Officer, World Economic Forum, challenged participants to consider the different action points proposed “to move beyond” in the year ahead. Should corporations focus more on the short term or the long term, or both, he asked. How do we develop more corporate responsibility at a time when businesses are becoming more global? And most critically, how do we reconcile the varying speed of clocks between the public and the private sectors? To this end, Bourguignon recalled what former US President Bill Clinton had told the Davos gathering on the opening day of the meeting, namely that “although we know what needs to be done, we need to adopt a systemic approach to achieve it.”

Referring to the need for business, government and civil society leaders to coordinate their activities for dealing with problems more effectively, John T. Chambers, President and Chief Executive Officer, Cisco Systems, USA, and a Co-Chair of the Annual Meeting, said that people tend to want to solve these problems one variable at a time. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “We should stay in the area we understand best.” He also stressed the need to get the best value out of what one does by moving at the same pace. We need to work at them all together.”

Co-CEO of the World Economic Forum, Jose Maria Figueres said that “the meeting has shown that leaders from all sectors of society, not just business and politics, but religion and civil society too needed to work together to achieve partnership and prosperity; one cannot be achieved without the other. The participation of leaders as diverse as the Presidents of Iran, Pakistan and Poland, along with Vice President Cheney, and the Prime Minister of Turkey along with more than 1,000 representatives of business, has shown that leaders want to build bridges and work together in partnership. Whether it be transatlantic relations, corporate social responsibility or dealing with weapons of mass destruction, the World Economic Forum annual meeting has again illustrated the desire for partnership in this increasingly complex and interrelated world,” he added.

In a certain way, it is good that people do not trust leadership decisions right away, added Carlos Ghosn, President, Nissan Motor Company, Japan, and Co-Chair of the annual meeting. “You have done nothing yet. It is quite simple. You have to have transparency and results. The point is that one needs to deliver.”

Marilyn C. Nelson, Chair and Chief Executive Office, Carlson Companies, USA, and Co-Chair of the annual meeting, agreed that dealing with new risks is a key issue. One problem is the lack of one of the major stakeholders at the table, notably women. “I see this as a risk,” she said, particularly at a time when the world is becoming more “one to one”.

An estimated 80% of consumers are women, she maintained. The usage of the Internet by women has also surpassed that of men, she added. When dealing with a world consisting of both the short and long term, she stressed, “we do need a new framework.”

Walter B. Kielholz, Chairman of the Board, Credit-Suisse Group, Switzerland and Co-Chair of the Annual Meeting, further noted that one should not seek to use regulation as a means of providing an “all insurance” for confronting risk. “It is wrong to assume that there is no risk that cannot be handled.”

Summaries are available at : http://www.weforum.org/summaries2004



(Excerpted from the December 2003 newsletter of the Swiss Coalition of Development Organizations, distributed to the media at the World Social Forum 2004)

As the UN General Assembly declared the year 2003 the International Year of Freshwater, Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the global water crisis had become the major challenge facing the international community. The UN environmental authority UNEP says the freshwater crisis is potentially just as dangerous as climate change.

The struggle to secure a sustainable water policy is one for social change, for economic advancement and social justice. UNESCO, the specialised agency for culture and education, clearly defines water as one of nature’s treasures and part of the cultural heritage of mankind. In April 2003, UNESCO published for the first time a comprehensive world water development report <<Water for People – Water for Life>> which states clearly that owing to political inaction, the water shortage in many regions of the world is assuming hitherto unsuspected proportions.

The first major UN Water Conference in 1977 in Mar del Plata stated: <<All peoples [à] have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs.>> It was then promised that by 2000 every human being would have access to drinking water of good quality and sufficient quantity. Yet, today:

– 1.4 billion people lack access to clean drinking water.

– 6,000 children are dying each day from the consequences of polluted water.

– 3 billion people have no sanitary facilities.

– 840 million people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Water and food shortage go hand-in-hand.

Public development funds have been dwindling steadily over the past 10 years – contrary to all promises. At the same time, more money is being spent annually in Europe and the USA on dog and cat food than would be needed to provide access to clean drinking water for all humanity.

Lack of water is leading to increased hunger, poverty, misery and disease, as well as desertification. Migration, social unrest, conflicts and the danger of war over the use of water are being compounded.

The World Bank says it will take as much as USD 180 billion annually to achieve the UN Millennium Goals with respect to water. This figure was sharply contested by the Chairman of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) at the annual meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in New York in spring 2002. If we forego high-tech and high-cost projects, USD 10 billion per year would be enough to provide water and sanitary facilities for all.

This difference in funding requirements reflects a fundamentally different view of people and conception of the world. (One side favours) massive dams with the inevitable forced resettlements, (the other favours) small-scale irrigation plants for basic food supplies and self-managed springs for drinking water. It’s a matter of will, not money.

The money could be easily obtained. States and development organizations need only stand by what they subscribed to at the 1995 UN World Social Summit in Copenhagen: the 20:20 initiative. Under this initiative, industrialised countries are to reserve 20 per cent of their development aid for basic social needs. These include low-cost drinking water supply systems and sanitary facilities. Developing countries in turn must invest 20 per cent of their budget in this realm.

This forward-looking solution was not implemented anywhere in the world. Individual states hardly ever keep the political promises made at the major UN conferences of the 1990s — from the 1992 Rio Agenda 21 to the 2002 Johannesburg action programme. Instead, policymakers have used the WTO agreements to pave the way for economic globalisation, throwing the door wide open to liberalisation and privatisation. It is more than fatal when good governance means that governmental responsibility for the basic needs of people and for protecting resources vital to life is relegated to multinational corporations and placed in the invisible hand of the market.

The most fundamental commitment assumed in the UN framework is the protection of human rights. This includes the right to water. In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) issued what may be regarded as a landmark General Comment (No. 15) on the right to water: Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good. The Committee clearly opposes the commercialisation and commodification by which water is being degraded to a run-of-the-mill, tradable good.

Is water a public good belonging to humanity, like the air and the climate, or is it a tradable commodity like paper clips or paper tissues? Should the source of life become a source of profits? In other words, who owns water? Who is responsible for providing everyone with access to clean water? The public or the private sector?

These questions have been around since the water issue became caught in the maelstrom of worldwide liberalisation. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are pressing poor and indebted developing countries to combat their poverty by liberalising and privatising public services. Along with education and healthcare, these also include water supply systems.

Thus Mozambique, for example, had to sell off the water supply system in the capital Maputo so that it could obtain debt forgiveness. The same with Cameroon, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana and other countries. A handful of water multinationals from France, Germany and the USA are dividing up the world of water amongst themselves. Cities such as Manila, Karachi, Casablanca, Jakarta, Buenos Aires and Panama are under the control of Veolia (formerly Vivendi), Suez (France), the RWE Group from Essen (Germany) or Bechtel (USA).

A new form of colonialism and a new power divide are emerging with respect to water. Local people’s democratic rights of co-decision, transparency and the duty of accountability are falling by the wayside. A culture of sharing and preservation is being displaced by the dictate of profit maximisation and purchasing power. Decisions are being taken in Lyon (France), for example, as to who will receive what quality of water and on what terms in Buenos Aires or Manila. The profits from the water business are flowing abroad. This is a significant financial drain on the countries.

The multinationals have no qualms about prematurely withdrawing from the agreements when the profits do not meet their expectations. Such was recently the case in Manila (see SCN No. 36). Under the GATS negotiations (General Agreement on Trade in Services of the World Trade Organisation, WTO) the European Union is demanding that 72 developing countries open up their local water supply system to foreign providers. The European Union is in this way yielding to pressure from its international water giants, which are keen to expand their business.

The corporations are interested in the urban pipeline systems, where there is a sufficient number of customers who are able to pay. Water prices are often increased so sharply that the poorer population groups can no longer afford water and therefore revert to contaminated river water. This occurred in South Africa, with a cholera epidemic as the outcome. Rural dwellers without access to water remain so, as do those in big city slums. We are not a bucket or faucet closer to realising the UN millennium goal of providing more people with a basic supply of water.

The only sustainable approach is the equitable and fair distribution of water between the various user groups, between States, and between man and nature. The international community embraced this landmark principle at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Today, water is in need of global protection under international law. There is a huge void here. International law must ensure for all people on earth a basic supply of water, access to clean drinking water, fair distribution and protection from water pollution. The Climate Convention enshrines the atmosphere as a “common good of humanity”. Water must be protected in exactly the same way by an international convention, a water convention.

For further information, contact Rosmarie Bar, responsible person for the water campaign at the Swiss Coalition (phone: +41 31 360 93 32; e-mail: rbaer@swisscoalition.ch)

  • =================

(Excerpted from a media handout at the WSF 2004 by the Indian non-governmental organization Navdanya. Website: www.vshiva.net)

On May 13, 2003 the US, joined by Canada and Argentina, filed a dispute in the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s policies on Genetically Modified (GM) Foods. The EU has a strict policy on GM foods, requiring labeling and enacted a five-year moratorium on GM food until further research has been done. The US regarded this moratorium as a “trade barrier” and on 18th August requested the WTO to establish a panel with the intention to lift the moratorium. This WTO panel will be deciding on this case in the near future, and the outcome will affect the right of people everywhere to choose safe food.

1. Citizen’s Around the World Say NO

Seven years after the first commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods, most people around the world still firmly reject this technology. Only four countries are growing nearly all of the world’s genetically modified crops, with the US alone accounting for over 75%. More than 35 countries, including the entire European Union, have taken steps to restrict the growing and importation of GM crops, and require labeling of all foods with genetically modified ingredients.

The U.S. administration response has been to bring a suit at the level of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to pressure the EU to lift its five-year de facto moratorium on new GM food varieties and strict limits on imports of GM products. Once again, US-based agribusiness companies, the biotechnology industry, and their political allies in Washington are seeking to force this hazardous technology on the peoples of the world.

2. Citizens Have Standing

It is the right and duty of citizens to participate in the setting of international rules and regulations regarding trade. The WTO claims to be a multilateral institution, where each country (and by extension, each citizen) has an equal vote. However in practice, the WTO is a “multinational” institution, where multinational corporate interests use governments as proxy to push their interests unilaterally.

The people of the United States are not demanding an end to the EU moratorium, they are demanding clear labeling of GM foods. In many states Americans are demanding a moratorium of their own. The US Trade Representative is representing a handful of biotech corporations, not US citizens, in demanding that the EU change its policies against the will of its own citizens.

This case is not just an assault on the rights of EU citizens to make their own food choices, it is also a threat to all citizens of the world who want safe food. This case demonstrates why citizens must have clear standing in any legitimate global trade regime.

3. Scientific evidence: Instability and Uncertainty

From erosions (early ulcers) in the stomachs of rats fed GM tomatoes in the lab, to triple-herbicide resistant oilseed rape volunteers plaguing Canadian fields, scientific evidence points to the dangers of GMOs. Biotech proponents fund numerous studies to try and show that their GMO products are safe, but the scientific evidence points conclusively to two things about genetic engineering: uncertainty and instability.

Uncertainty – Contrary to the image projected by the biotech industry, biologists do not fully understand what causes a trait to be exhibited in a living organism. What is clear is that they are not determined by DNA alone, but through complex interactions within a cell. It is not surprising that the vast majority of attempts to “genetically engineer” living matter usually fail. Almost every major report on GMO’s cites the need for further study.

Instability – There is significant evidence that Genetic Modification brings transgenic instability. When foreign genes inserted into a living organism they behave in volatile and unstable ways. Often they fail to produce the expected result, which would explain crop failures of GM crops like the ones seen in India last year. Even more frightening, the genes can be functional and “break free.” These genes can stack up, as in the case of triple herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape volunteers appearing in Canada within two years of the planting of single-herbicide tolerant crops. These genes can even be transmitted to other organisms. Genes for herbicide resistance have been transferred from GM crops to weeds, creating potential “super weeds.”

In 22 years the only agricultural products that have been commercialized are herbicide resistant and BT crops. The science at the genetic level is still in its infancy and commercialization is obviously premature.

4. Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle is the antidote to short-term thinking and the excesses of unaccountable industry. This basic premise is that when (on the basis of available evidence) an activity may harm human health or the environment, a cautious approach should be taken in advance. It recognizes that in complex biological systems, direct cause-and-effect proof of harm is not easy to demonstrate until irreversible damage is done.

In the past people have been exposed to deadly doses of radiation, bio-accumulative pesticides like DDT, and countless other toxins and pollutants long after serious health concerns had been documented. The precautionary principle is based on these experiences, and has been enshrined in numerous international environmental treaties, conventions and political declarations, including the Biosafety Protocol.

There are serious concerns about the threat of GMO’s to human health, and there is conclusive proof of the dangers of “genetic pollution” in the environment. The US is taking the opposite of a precautionary approach with its “Don’t look, don’t find” approach to monitoring GMO’s after commercial release. The US Department of Agriculture, from 1992 to 2002, spent only 1% of its biotech research budget on risk-related research. The US is globalizing a culture of scientific irresponsibility by initiating this dispute against Europe, and by refusing to become a member of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Biosafety Protocol.

5. Biosafety Protocol

The Biosafety Protocol is an international framework for dealing with GMO’s, which was the outcome of over 10 years of negotiations under the convention on biological diversity. It is designed to protect biodiversity and its sustainable use from the potentially negative effect of the transboundary movement of GMOs, defined as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). The protocol also refers to human health and socio-economic impacts. It allows countries to invoke the precautionary principle and prevent the import of GMOs in certain cases. Justifying US opposition to a strong biosafety protocol, Rafe Pomerance, head of the US delegation at the negotiations in Cartagena stated: “This is about a multimillion dollar industry.”

The Biosafety Protocol is in essence about regulating trade in GMOs by giving primacy to safety. Any WTO jurisdiction in this area should clearly be limited by this. For the US to claim that the EU moratorium is an unfair barrier to trade is to deny the existence of the biosafety protocol, and to deny the world community the right to set basic health and environmental standards.

6. Socio-Economic Failures

The primary reason cited for pushing GM crops on unwilling citizens is that they will produce more food and thus will remove hunger and increase incomes of poor farmers. However independent evaluations show that they are no socio-economic advantages to GM crops. In fact there are serious socio-economic costs because GM seeds are more expensive and require payment of royalty and technology fees.

Under field conditions GM crops have often performed much worse than their non-GM counterparts. In 2002, the first commercial planting of Bt cotton in India was wiped out while non-GM varieties performed well, leaving GM planting farmers facing serious financial losses.

The Strategy Unit of the UK Cabinet Office also showed that GM crops have no socio-economic advantages but could create ecological risks and political unrest. (Field Work: Weighing up the Costs and Benefits of GM-Crops’ Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office, UK) Even the United States Department of Agriculture has had to recognize that GM crops do not bring exceptional benefits to farmers.

7. There Are Alternatives

For every application for biotechnology in agriculture offered by industry so far there are safer and more sustainable alternatives available. Ecological management of pests and weeds is a proven option to genetically modified herbicide resistant and Bt crops. 208 sustainable agriculture projects in 52 developing countries have shown productivity increases from 50 to 100%. (Reducing Food Poverty by Increasing Agriculture Sustainability in Developing Countries, J. N. Pretty et al.)

In Latin America rotations, green manures and cover crops have increased yield from 20% – 250%. (Applying Agro-ecology to Enhance the Productivity of Peasant Farming System in Latin America, Miguel Altieri, 2001). Even proposed future crops, such as the genetically modified Golden Rice, and the Protein Potato, are inferior to natural alternatives for meeting the nutritional needs of the poor.

8. Conclusion

Given the abundance of alternatives, the risks that GM crops pose to the environment and human health, the existing Biosafety Protocol, the scientific uncertainty, and the lack of any socio economic advantages, this use of the WTO dispute settlement system for imposing GM food on the world is totally illegitimate. It is the right of all citizens to choose safe food, and the duty of governments to protect the health of their people and their environments by refusing GM food.


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