Sunday, July 10, 2011
Dubious Dealings With the Panda
By Stephan Börnecke
July 10, 2011
Can genetically altered soybeans be sustainable? The discussion is heating up over a shipment of this raw material that is to arrive in Europe these days. There are accusations against the environmental organization WWF, which issues its certificate for genetically modified plants.
The attempt by the international agriculture and foodstuff industry to brush up its image is entering a new phase. After years of preparations, the first shipment of allegedly sustainably produced soybeans is to reach Europe in the next few days by ship: 80,000 tons of soybeans produced by the Brazilian producer André Maggi, destined for the farmers of the large-scale dairy enterprise Friesland-Campina and the meat-processing company Vion, both Dutch companies. Another 5,000 tons are going to the US, to the food manufacturer Unilever.
The dispute about whether these soybeans were actually produced in a sustainable manner has been ongoing for months and is now about to start in earnest because this raw material, allegedly grown in an environmentally friendly manner, contains genetically modified soy. In Europe, that is not considered sustainable at all, especially since there are more and more reports about the health risks involved in the growing of genetically modified soybeans. Because of the Brazilian shipment, genetically modified oil and meal will end up in milk, in feed for pigs and chickens, or even in margarine and dressings - and the companies pretend to be green.
Behind this shipment is the RTRS Association (Round Table on Responsible Soy Association), which was founded in 2006 in Switzerland with the help of the international environmental organization WWF, and which is supported by companies such as Monsanto, Unilever and Bayer Crop Science. Their certificate, which could soon also be on German food products, expressly allows the growing of genetically altered soy. Genetically altered soy, however, has a significant impact on the environment due to the use of the total herbicide Round-Up, which contains glyphosate. Recent studies confirmed that it also affects human health. Says Heike Moldenhauer, expert for genetic engineering of one Germany’s most respected nature protection organizations (BUND), “this has nothing to do” with sustainability.
WWF, however, is a co-founder not only of the RTRS initiative, but also of a similar association, RSPO (Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil), for allegedly sustainable palm oil production and tries to placate the parties that show concern. According to expert Ilka Peterseon, the first shipment of the RTRS-certified soy is not genetically modified soy, because the soy had not been mixed with genetically altered products until later. Regardless, the guaranteed non-genetically modified soy has to be certified in a very time-intensive manner due to the feared contamination with genetically modified soy during transport, which is why it is so expensive. Moldenhauer also believes that this first RTRS shipment to Europe is questionable: “If it really were not genetically modified, it would say that.”
All product advertised as RTRS soy is labelled “sustainable” if it is able to save the rainforest or other biologically valuable habitats. The RTRS catalog specifically permits genetic engineering. Environmental organizations, lead by Greenpeace and BUND, have thus been accusing the WWF for quite some time now of green-washing, label fraud, and, according to BUND President Hubert Weiger, the “misuse of the term sustainability.” In a letter signed among others by BUND, Demeter, Naturland and the ABL (German Small Farmers’ Association), but only distributed internally, the organizations coin the term of a “green mantle” for the genetically engineered plant, with the help of the WWF. It would, in fact, protect a few valuable habitats, but “certainly not the environment as a whole”. The environmentalists accuse the WWF of “stabbing” international initiatives that fight against genetic engineering and that, at least in Europe, are quite successful “in the back.”
The environmental organizations do, however, hesitate to level these charges publically. They do not like to attack each other, because “in the end, the environmental movement is too small for that,” managing director of Greenpeace Brigitte Behrens told Frankfurter Rundschau.
An “open campaign platform” of Greenpeace does, however, prominently display the Panda, the trademark of the WWF. New allegations against the WWF, for example that it is collaborating with the powerful corporation instead of the environment, became one of the top trending issues on the platform “Greenaction.de/campaigns.”
What contributed to this interest was a film by journalist Wilfried Huismann, the “Pact with the Panda,” which was first aired on the ARD channel on June 22 at midnight. In his film, the journalist accuses the WWF of acting as a green fig leaf for the industry. Saving the rainforest or the orangutan is only of marginal importance; instead, the industry can count on the support of the WWF because the palm oil contained in bio-fuel in the European Union has to be sustainably cultivated. The RSPO label could provide this proof.
The German WWF, in the meantime, is fighting the film with cease-and-desist undertakings. It claims that some of the main allegations are inaccurate. It claims that one plantation shown in the film is not RSPO certified, and if it were certified one day, not 80 hectares, but 4,000 hectares and therefore one-third of the plantation area would remain protected forest. The German WWF also distances itself from allegations of genetic engineering: It claims that it is not cooperating with Monsanto. Rather, it says, the corporation is merely a member of the RTRS, without any influence from the WWF. Anyone active in countries such as Argentina, where 90 percent of the soy cultivated is genetically engineered, would also have to be in dialogue with Monsanto, explained WWF speaker Astrid Deilmann.
The German WWF now has a problem: It is mainly a branch of the international organization and, different from American WWF organizations, is opposed to genetic engineering. Unlike WWF Brazil, the German branch does not have a seat in the RTRS. Whereas US WWF Vice President Jason Clay clearly comes out in favour of genetic engineering in the Huismann film, the German WWF speaker Deilmann warns companies against using RTRS soy. The corporations have a different opinion: Meat producer Vion wants to switch all of its Dutch farmers to RTRS soy and expand the concept to Germany by 2015. The company’s announcement says nothing about the fact that RTRS soy meal may contain genetic engineering.
The case is similar for palm oil: As early as November 2009, 80 internationally acting environmental organizations, from Acción Ecológica in Ecuador and Deutsche Freunde für die Naturvölker [German Friends of Primitive People] to the World Rainforest Movement had opposed the WWF’s support of the RSPO. The main allegation: The RSPO would tolerate the displacement of local populations from future palm oil plantations and destroy swamps and rainforests. “Finally,” Freunde für die Naturvölker commented, “someone was courageous enough to address the WWF and its schemes with the industry.” In the film, a speaker of Friends of the Earth says that the organization is helping the palm oil industry expand and “green-wash” destructive production.
Europe imports 35 to 38 million tons of soy raw materials per year, which is 70 kg for each of the 470 million EU citizens. Approximately 90% of all foodstuff traded in the EU are labeled as genetically modified, even though it is not clear whether the sack actually contains genetically modified soy. Importers label the product to prevent any claims for recourse.
Estimates suggest that actually 50 - 60% of the product comes from genetically altered plants or is contaminated with genetically modified soy. 15-19 million tons are free from genetic engineering. Non-genetically altered product can often only be purchased from some regions in Brazil. Certifications that accompany the shipments on vessels and trucks ensure that this clean product did not have any contact with genetically altered soy.
In Germany, approximately five million tons of soy oil, or soy meal, are consumed. In 2010, 94% of this amount went into food or foodstuff. Ten years ago, it was 98%, but today, 5% of the soy is now used for the production of biodiesel. Biodiesel contains 10% of soy methyl ester. During the warm season, biodiesel in Germany can contain up to 5% palm oil. Of the 53 million tons of palm oil that were produced in 2010, 71.1% percent were use for food and 4.7% were used for energy purposes (electricity, heat, or fuel).
Biofuels and plant oils have to demonstrate their sustainability in cultivation and production with the help of certification systems. Only then can they be applied to the biofuel components or be subsidized under the EU’s Renewable Energy Act. Consequently, the cultivation of biomass for biofuels and plant oils must not entail the conversion of areas with high levels of carbon resources or high biodiversity.
Certification systems such as the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) or the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) can be used as a basis for such demonstration. RTRS soy has already been recognized by the EU as evidence of sustainable production.
[English translation by Larass Translations]