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Graziano da Silva supports GMOs, but not seed monopolies

By JERRY HAGSTROM

ROME — José Graziano da Silva, the director general-elect of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said today that he believes in genetic modification in agriculture but is opposed to individual companies being granted monopolies on genetically modified seeds.

In a news conference the day after his election by delegates from member countries, Graziano da Silva, a former food security minister in Brazil, also gave his views on biofuels, food prices and a range of other issues. He will assume his position in January for a term that will last until July 15, 2015.

In response to a question from a reporter who noted that Brazil uses genetically modified seed and wanted to know whether he would promote their use, he said, “I feel the antagonism is very much due to the monopoly of a seed.” He also said the anti-GMO feelings are intensified when the seed is owned by a transnational company that “does not have the best reputation.”

But Graziano da Silva signaled that he has no problems with genetic modification itself. He said the university in Brazil where he has taught for many years, the State University of Campinas, has research programs in genetic modification, and he is particularly interested in research on plants that could help in the production of insulin. But he added that he does not believe in monopolies, particularly in seeds.

As director general, Graziano da Silva will have no direct legal power over the use of genetically modified seeds, but his views could affect how developing countries that have not yet allowed their use handle their legalization and certification. One of FAO’s main jobs is to advise developing countries on agricultural policy, particularly when the countries do not have the policy advisers and apparatus to handle complicated scientific decisions.

In opening comments, Graziano da Silva acknowledged that his tight election — he won the vote 92 to 88 — signaled that donor countries calling for reforms at FAO had not voted for him. But now that the election was over, he said, he does not believe that the donors are against him.

“Those divisions became clear in the election process,” said Graziano da Silva. “It is part of daily life in the FAO, there are differences that are not going to be swept away. I was living day by day with these. We have to work on a minimum consensus so this organization is not paralyzed by these divisions. I hope I can forge agreements to get a minimum consensus.”

Describing the election as a democratic success, he added, “I didn't make any bargains during the election process. I would like to keep it that way.”

He noted that the G20 countries had given FAO new responsibilities at their meeting in Paris last week, and said he is particularly interested in the G20 agreement to improve the public availabililty of information on food production and expected demand.

He also noted that he had received a call of congratulations from Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Program, and that the two had agreed to work on “a common agenda” to find hunger.

He noted that FAO Director General Jacques Diouf’s term does not end until December, and said Diouf is in charge until then. Asked by a Senegalese reporter whether he had any thing positive to say about his predecessor, he replied that he would make his comments directly to Diouf. He said he has asked for a meeting to discuss the transition, and noted that Diouf’s wife had called his wife to congratulate her and discuss their roles.

In answer to other questions, Graziano da Silva said:
  • High food prices are here to stay for years to come. “I am confident high prices will remain,” he said, adding he could not be certain how many years that would be. High prices “are related to the financial markets,” he said, although he did not provide any details on his views. He said the high prices are a problem for the developing countries that import food and that FAO will give them policy assistance.
  • Biofuels are like cholesterol. “There are good biofuels and bad biofuels,” he said. In Argentina, where there is a surplus of oilseeds, it makes sense to try to use them for transportation fuel, he said. Ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil does not compete with the production of other foods or hurt the Amazon because the sugar production area is as far from the Amazon as the Vatican in Rome is from the Kremlin in Moscow, he added. ” Biofuels are “not the silver bullet,” he said, but also “should not be demonized.”
  • The increasing frequency of natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean area are due to climate change. Natural disasters are now occurring yearly in those areas, he said, and officials have to be constantly prepared and incorporate emergencies into their daily planning.
  • FAO will make a “greater thrust” toward school feeding based on local purchases of the food. FAO will help organize small farmers into co-ops in developing countries so that they can better sell to the schools, while the World Food Program will focus on the purchasing side.
  • Governments should work through the Codex Alimentarius Commission to establish quality standards for foods because privately developed standards can become trade barriers.
  • Purchases of farm land by rich countries in poor countries — known as land grabs in development circles — are “qualitatively important” but so far are not important in quantitative terms. But he added, “Every serpent starts small.” FAO, he said, will continue to provide countries with strategic plans and guidance on handling land purchases by foreigners.
  • The purpose of the FAO is to fighter hunger — there is no tradeoff between hunger and agriculture and the FAO will address both issues. When he started implementing the zero hunger program in Brazil, many people said it would not work, he said, but by being flexible officials and civil society learned how to make it work. At FAO, he said, the staff must keep in mind that the purpose of FAO is to remove hunger not just from the staffs’ families, but from the world. When he asked FAO employees to tell him the purpose of FAO, many gave long, complicated answers and fewer than 10 percent said it was to get rid of hunger. When World War II ended and peace was achieved, he said, it was possible to create a better world and get rid of hunger. “That is why this organization was created,” he said.