Updated and Published in Agricultural Libraries Information Notes,
Volume 19, Numbers 10-12
ISSN: 0095-2699 1993
by Roger Blobaum, Associate Director, World Sustainable Agriculture Association (WSAA)
I want to thank Jayne MacLean for this invitation to participate in this Issues and Answers Forum. She asked me to talk about my recent experience as the World Sustainable Agriculture Association’s accredited representative to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. She also suggested covering some of the things that went on behind the scenes.
The conference, the largest UN- sponsored meeting ever held, is usually referred to by insiders as “UNCED.” It’s better known to everyone else as the Earth Summit.
This was much more than an international extravaganza involving more than 100 heads of state and delegations from 170 countries. It involved much more important issues than whether President Bush would go or what he would say when he got there.
This event, held last June  in the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro, was the culmination of a 2-year process that also included active participation by representatives of a record number of non-governmental organizations [NGOs]. The United Nations reported recently that 1,420 NGOs were recognized as part of the process. More than 1,000 of them had never participated in a UN process before.
Later I also want to report briefly on the preparatory meetings for the International Conference on Nutrition held a few weeks ago in Geneva. Some of the same NGOs, including my own, also are part of that process. The conference itself will begin in about three weeks in Rome.
My report on what happened at the Earth Summit is offered from the perspective of someone who focused almost exclusively on sustainable agriculture. I was involved in the preparatory meetings, referred to as Prepcom IV, as a member of an international sustainable agriculture working group. We participated in five weeks of preparatory meetings, both official and otherwise, at the UN in New York last March and April .
NGOs could buttonhole delegates in the halls and other open areas of the UN Building, sit in on some of their working sessions, provide them with materials, question them in special NGO forums, or arrange to meet with them formally. It was similar to what you would do to lobby a state legislature.
I also helped organize, and participated in, the International Forum on Sustainable Agriculture that was part of the NGO Global Forum in Rio. This forum for non-governmental organizations took place simultaneously with the formal and ceremonial events where official speeches were made and official documents were signed.
More than 300 representatives of NGOs from more than 40 countries worked together in these two sustainable agriculture groups in New York and Rio. There was good representation from both North and South, a strong feeling of shared purpose, and almost total agreement on the principles of agriculture and sustainability.
Those of us representing NGOs were referred to by some as a new generation of environmental diplomats who are learning how to be effective in influencing UN delegations, UN agencies, and the UN process itself. I believe this new level of involvement in the UN process is significant for sustainable agriculture.
What we saw for the first time in this process was widespread questioning on the world stage by NGOs of the policies of national governments. NGOs discovered they could pressure their own governments through this activity, challenging and even embarrassing them into being responsible.
We felt at times that Senator Gore was right when he said on the Senate floor, weeks before the Earth Summit was convened, that the principal threat to its success was the U.S. government. The press carried stories on the U.S. positions on biodiversity and global warming, the fact that these positions lacked credibility and were not supported by most other nations in Rio, and the public relations nightmare this created. What was never reported was the fact that the U.S. delegation also was one of the worst on sustainable agriculture.
Our working group had to turn to delegations from other countries for help in beating back attempts by the U.S. delegation to weaken sustainable agriculture commitments in the documents being prepared for Rio.
We probably should have expected this. The official 424-page report to UNCED prepared jointly by several U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, included only seven paragraphs on sustainable agriculture. And you had to go all the way to Page 320 to find that.
Although thousands of media people covered the Earth Summit process, many important stories dealing with politically sensitive issues were never reported. These untold stories dealt with such officially off limits subjects as militarism, lifestyles, over-consumption, and energy.
Heavy dependence on fossil fuels in developed countries and their adverse impact on the atmosphere was kept off the agenda primarily by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Nuclear energy was kept off the agenda by France, which relies on nuclear power plants for 70% of its electricity. Almost all governments of industrialized nations made certain that Northern lifestyles and patterns of overconsumption, a clear threat to global sustainability, were not seriously discussed.
All governments, both North and South, did everything possible to keep militarism from being discussed as a threat to sustainability. Constant pres- sure applied by the NGO Women’s Caucus was probably the only reason the issue of military devastation as a threat to the environment was mentioned at all. Bella Abzug was a real force throughout the UNCED process.
NGOs kept these issues from being swept under the rug through conferences, forums, and other events at Prep- com IV in New York and at the NGO Global Forum in Rio. The scope of the Earth Summit was broadened and the UN process was enriched by this unofficial activity.
To make this report more real and specific, I want to describe briefly how sustainable agriculture NGOs responded to four opportunities to make a difference at the preparatory meetings in New York.
After seeing the draft language on sustainable agriculture shortly after the meetings began, NGOs prepared and submitted 25 strengthening amendments. These proposed changes were submitted through official channels and distributed as well to all delegations. About half of these changes were adopted.
One early challenge was identifying individuals within national delegations that would help from the inside. Several delegations, as it turned out, included members who were political supporters of sustainable agriculture or were active in environ- mental NGOs at home. Most of them were from Northern Europe. They helped us from the inside throughout the five weeks of meetings in New York.
Our second opportunity to intervene came when the U.S. delegation introduced a package of amendments during a working session and claimed they were non-controversial. We discovered that the suggested changes were both controversial and damaging and appealed to other delegations for help.
The U.S. attempt to have the Earth Summit go on record as saying free trade would solve the problems of sustainability, as a result, was defeated. So was the attempt to cross out all references to farmers rights to the benefits of biotechnology while preserving all the rights of industry. The U.S. amendments also would have deleted all references to over-use of chemicals.
NGOs also had another intervention opportunity when an attempt was made by the U.S. delegation to dilute the role of farmer organizations. NGOs were able to get permission for a representative of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers to address the delegates. She ably articulated the important role farmers and their organizations must play in a global shift to sustainable agriculture. The language favorable to farmers, as a result, was rescued.
Finally, we pressed successfully for including a commitment to support an international ecological agriculture network. This commitment is in Agenda 21, the Earth Summit plan of action. It calls on UN agencies to “help develop information available through NGOs and to promote an international ecological agriculture network to accelerate development and implementation of ecological agriculture practices.”
Unfortunately, implementation of the network commitment is being held up at this time by disagreement over how it should be set up. Some NGOs want a strong secretariat with a modified top-down approach. Others are suspicious of any kind of centralized control and feel it is sufficient at the beginning to simply link up all the networks now in existence.
I want to turn now to the NGO Global Forum, a 2-week event that took place at the same time as the Earth Summit. NGOs, including those working on sustainable agriculture, participated in more than 300 programs in temporary open-air meeting structures in Flamingo Park in downtown Rio.
The daily meetings in Structure 33, and under the trees nearby, focused on international sustainable agriculture initiatives, further discussion of the ecological agriculture network, and the preparation of two treaties. One was on sustainable agriculture. The other was on food security.
One limiting, and often frustrating, problem was having interpreters available. The NGO Forum was funded primarily by donations. There were occasional work stoppages by interpreters who refused to go forward until enough money could be raised to as- sure that they would be paid. Members of sustainable agriculture groups at times had to volunteer as interpreters to avoid canceling the day’s event.
Meanwhile an armada of modern buses and limousines were whisking the official delegates to Rio Central, a specially-built air-conditioned and heavily-fortified complex in a Rio suburb 40 miles away. It was surrounded by tanks and armored troop carriers, protected by check points, over-run by media, and well supplied with interpreters.
The treaties were prepared by NGO working groups and debated by all of us. They provided a vehicle for bringing us all together around a set of principles and an agreed-on plan of action. This is the first time that a large number of NGOs from both North and South have ever reached consensus on a global commitment to a transition to sustainable agriculture.
The sustainable agriculture treaty states that there is an urgent need “to break the dominant predatory model of agriculture in favor of new patterns of sustainability that are equitable and participatory, to guarantee the full control of the means of production in the hands of the people who work the land, and to insure them a permanent source of income and high levels of productivity.”
Our treaty commits sustainable agriculture organizations around the world to work together in the 1990s and beyond toward these objectives:
1) Development and enhancement of sustainable farming systems;
2) Restoration of degraded agro-ecological and cultural systems;
3) Development and promotion of regional food self-sufficiency;
4) Development of alternative sources of sustainable agriculture information;
5) Increased farmer participation in setting agricultural re- search and funding priorities;
6) Levying of taxes on pesticides;
7) Cutting pesticide use and speeding up the transition to biological pest control methods.
I have been presenting the treaty to U.S. groups and getting a strong positive response. I believe we finally have a global sustainable agriculture agenda.
Both semantics and the various ways certain concepts are articulated in different languages made these international discussions difficult. We found that words like “organic,” “sustainable,” “regenerative,” and others we use here were unfamiliar or unacceptable to many. The one word all of us could accept to describe what we had in mind was “ecological.”
The word “organic” does not appear, as far as I can tell, in any of the official Earth Summit documents. But the UN Development Project has come through with a new report that concludes that organic agriculture presents an attractive alternative to current non-sustainable practices in developing countries.
The report, released in Rio, does not claim organic farming is a panacea. What it does conclude is that “the avail- able material tends to support the conclusion that, both in high potential areas and in marginal lands, organic agriculture offers agronomically feasible solutions for problems of environmental sustainability.”
The call for sustainable agriculture is clearly stated throughout the official documents of the Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that development must occur on a sustainable basis to meet the needs of present and future generations.
Those of us involved in this process believe the Earth Summit’s 800-page plan of action marks an historic new commitment to sustainable agriculture by the UN and all nations. We feel it is a mandate for a global transformation of agriculture.
A new Sustainable Development Commission is being set up at the UN now to implement Earth Summit commitments. The present secretary general of the FAO is expected to be named to head it. Representatives of a large number of NGOs, including the organization I represent [WSAA], are in New York now trying to make sure it is set up in a way that assures that the Earth Summit’s commitments to sustainable agriculture are met.
But NGOs are not going to be satisfied leaving this entirely in official hands. Our follow up has included participation in the preparatory meeting for the International Conference on Nutrition [ICNJ and in the conference itself. An accredited representative from my organization will be in Rome for the conference itself as well.
The decision of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association to participate in the preparatory meeting was made after we received a faxed alert from the NGO secretariat in Geneva. It noted that initial drafts of ICN documents appeared to reflect a strong food industry bias, that a large number of multinational food company representatives were planning to attend, and that it appeared that only one or two international sustainable agriculture NGOs would be there. Help was needed, it was suggested, to challenge the food industry initiative and attempt to get sustainable agriculture commitments written into the official documents.
It is important to point out that multinational food companies like Nestle and Pepsi Cola and Gerbers have set up captive NGOs, which have consultative status at the UN. That means they automatically are invited, as NGOs, to participate in all UN events. The chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers of America in Washington, for example, led a successful effort to penetrate the pre-conference meetings of authentic NGOs in Geneva and to work against our interests.
The NGOs met for two days before the official ICN meeting opened. Nearly half the people in my working group were food industry professionals, for example, and they outnumbered real NGOs in the working group that dealt with issues like local food self-sufficiency. This kind of participation by industry advocates is a new and significant development and is un- precedented at a UN conference.
NGOs lodged an official protest at a delegate session but no action was taken.
The NGOs, despite all these problems, presented the official meeting with a document that, among other things, recommended adoption of the two additions proposed on be- half of my organization. One was to have the ICN reaffirm the sustainable agriculture commitments adopted at the Earth Summit. The other was inclusion of specific language calling on national governments to promote adoption of sustainable food production methods and reduced pesticide use. The low point of the official meetings for me was watching a member of the U. S. delegation rise and express opposition to my second proposal.
A review of the revised documents being readied for the Rome meeting show that modified versions of both of my recommendations were included. It also showed that several changes pushed by my sustainable agriculture NGO colleagues also survived. These included language calling for improved access to land for small producers, sup- port for production of indigenous and traditional foods, and encouragement of crop rotations and biological inputs.
The proposal presented on behalf of my organization called on governments to accelerate the development of sustainable agriculture practices, including ecological agricultural methods and integrated pest management, and to strengthen research and extension programs that help facilitate their adoption. It said techniques that help reduce the use of agricultural chemicals should be encouraged. In the final version, the references to ecological agricultural methods and integrated pest management were crossed out.
Also challenged by the U.S. delegation and watered down was an NGO proposed section that called for development strategies that “create conditions for economic growth with particular focus on the objectives of poverty alleviation and food security and, based on food grown locally in sustainable agriculture systems, to promote national food self reliance.”
One significant issue here is whether international agencies and individual governments will continue to push Green Revolution approaches in developing nations. Another is whether they will continue to discourage local food self sufficiency and promote increased globalization of the food system. The issues are clearly joined on the world stage but the outcome of the debate remains in doubt.
Back here in the United States, more than 300 representatives of NGOs that were involved in the UNCED process met for three days at Michigan State University recently to discuss our next steps. A surprising development was statements from several academics that they had been left out of the Earth Summit process but were interested in becoming involved in the follow up. Comments of this kind led me to contact Jane Gates [of NAL’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center] and suggest that the National Agricultural Library might be able to help make it easier for academics, including graduate stu- dents, to gain access to the UNCED and ICN documents and other materials generated.
Let me wind up by sharing a Rio highlight that tells us a good deal about the nature of the struggle between nations over the environment. It involves Brazilian television, which provided a lot of coverage of the Earth Summit.
One of the most striking pieces of film, which was run over and over, showed stark aerial views of huge clear cut areas in Oregon and Washington. The scenes of scalped mountains were the worst I had ever seen. The commentators used this film to dramatize the double standard that has nations like ours pressing Brazil to save its forests while we continue to cut ours down.
I believe much was accomplished in Rio, especially in regard to agriculture. I believe we have entered a new era of global environmental protection. The challenge now is to make certain the commitments in the Earth Summit plan of action are kept. I can assure you that sustainable agriculture NGOs from throughout the world will do their part to see that these promises are kept.
Photo Caption: Gabriel Hegyes, Roger Blobaum, Jayne MacLean, and Jane Gates conferred on sustainable agriculture issues at NAL’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center following Blobaum’s presentation.