By Howard Minigh
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) set ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate hunger and poverty by 2030. The international development community – civil society, business and public institutions – rallied behind these ambitious targets and agreed to do everything in its power to achieve them.
The plant science industry recognizes that it has an important role to play to meet the SDGs. That’s by helping farmers — big and small-scale — protect their harvests from pests and provide nutritious and affordable food for a growing population. I was therefore disappointed by a 2017 report by Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and co-author Baskut Tuncak, which made sensational, erroneous accusations against the plant science industry. It called for eliminating crop protection and plant biotech products and advocated a transition towards an ideological, unrealistic approach to farming.
I find it deeply concerning that the report’s recommendations threaten the very human rights it hopes to protect and ultimately works against the SDGs. Refusing to allow farmers access to safe and effective plant science innovations would have a severe impact on millions of farmers that rely on these technologies to make an income and threaten food security for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Here I have outlined 10 areas that I find most challenging with the report:
1. The report threatens the right to safe, affordable food.
Given that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN deems crop protection practices, including pesticides, necessary to help prevent the loss of up to 80 percent of all crops, it is clear that an arbitrary restriction of pesticides – as advocated in the report – would threaten the food supply and the global right to safe and affordable food.
2. The author is clearly compromised.
The Special Rapporteur position is honorary, unpaid and the rapporteurs are not members of UN staff. The lead author on this report, Hilal Elver, is an activist lawyer with no scientific experience in agriculture or pesticides. She is also a long-time critic of industrial food production who has actively campaigned against agri-business and has strong links to anti-pesticide non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
3. The report has undergone little scrutiny.
There is no effective political or peer-review process where UN Human Rights Council Member States can comment on or retract the report once presented. This report was heavily influenced by NGO submissions with multiple references to Pesticide Action Network, Beyond Pesticides, Charles Benbrook and other non-scientific, anti-pesticide sources.
4. Research on the safety of biotech crops is ignored.
The report calls into question the safety of genetically modified crops, yet these crops have been proven safe for human and animal consumption by multiple health agencies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). A 2016 report by the NAS was conducted by more than 50 experts who reviewed over 900 international studies on biotech crops from the past 20 years.
5. Claims about neonicotinoids and pollinators lack evidence.
The report claims that neonicotinoids are primarily responsible for colony collapse disorder of bees worldwide. However, the UN Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services issued a 2016 report asserting “there is no clear evidence” that pesticides have directly contributed to longer term colony losses in the EU or U.S. and that there are multifactorial reasons for the reported decline in pollinator health.
6. UN and expert authorities on glyphosate are contradicted.
The report makes the claim that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen,” citing the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It fails to explain that IARC’s remit is to identify potential hazards and that risk assessments are performed by the Joint FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues, European Food Safety Authority and European Chemicals Agency. Moreover, regulators in Canada, Japan, Australia, the United States and other countries have concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic.
7. Human health associations are unsubstantiated.
The report rightly points out that “proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions … presents a considerable challenge”, yet it goes on to blame pesticides for a host of medical problems, particularly among farm workers. The body of well-conducted epidemiological studies shows a disassociation between exposure to pesticides and human diseases or conditions.
8. Stringent pesticide regulations are overlooked.
The report claims that pesticides are not adequately regulated and therefore, human health is not well protected. Yet pesticides are among the most tested and regulated chemicals in the world – in fact, more tests are required for them than pharmaceuticals. These tests are based on internationally accepted regulatory guidelines as defined by bodies such as the FAO and WHO.
9. The crop protection industry is misrepresented.
The authors accuse the industry of using “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and breaching the UN’s Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management. We are categorical on this: our industry exists to help farmers produce food for the world in a responsible and sustainable way. There is no place for aggressive or unethical marketing tactics as they conflict with the industry’s commitment to stewardship and good agricultural practices via the Code, which is fully supported and actively promoted by CropLife International and its member companies.
10. There is a totally unrealistic expectation of agroecology.
The report advocates agroecology as a replacement for conventional agriculture, but disregards the fact that it would be impossible to produce enough food for more than 7 billion people in the world without pesticides. A U.S. study estimated that without fungicides alone, yields of most fruit and vegetables would fall by 50-90 percent. Indeed, the report itself concedes that “evolving technology in pesticide manufacture, among other agricultural innovations, has certainly helped to keep agricultural production apace of unprecedented jumps in food demand.”
Two points upon which I do agree with Elver is that the right to food must extend to every global citizen and all citizens have a right to food produced in a safe and sustainable way for human health and for the environment.
The plant science industry continues to be fully and constructively engaged with all UN agencies to ensure an effective, multi-stakeholder approach to the 2030 development agenda, including access to safe and effective crop protection and biotechnology innovations. Elver’s report seeks to sabotage that involvement and to damage our strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the UN. CropLife International will continue to voice its concerns about this report and maintain an open and positive dialogue with all stakeholders to defeat global hunger and poverty.
Howard Minigh is CEO of CropLife International.