No Substance to SBSTTA’s Recommendations as Debate on Agrofuels and Geoengineering Fizzles

ETC Group attended the 12th meeting of the scientific advisory body (SBSTTA) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which met in Paris 2-6 July 2006. Expectations were high that SBSTTA would tackle new and emerging issues on its agenda: agrofuels (a.k.a. biofuels) and climate change. Despite the urgency of these matters, some governments managed to block meaningful recommendations and put a chill on biodiversity’s hottest topics.

At a two-day meeting in advance of SBSTTA, under the umbrella of the CBD Alliance, ETC Group joined civil society organizations and representatives from indigenous and local communities to share information and strategies on these and other biodiversity issues. There was strong consensus that the CBD must address the negative social, cultural and environmental impacts of agrofuels. Although frequently heralded as a solution to climate change, large-scale monoculture crops and tree plantations (particularly in the global South) threaten food sovereignty, biodiversity and the livelihoods of farming communities. Two new documents on agrofuels provide an excellent introduction to the issues. Agrofuels – Towards a Reality Check on Nine Key Issues challenges mainstream assumptions about the impacts of biofuels.

GRAIN has a special issue of Seedling devoted to agrofuels available here.

ETC Group went to Paris hoping to generate concerns and action on an imminent threat related to biodiversity and climate change: geoengineering (intentional, large-scale manipulation of the earth, sea and atmosphere as a response to climate change). On the first day of SBSTTA, ETC Group held a side-event on geoengineering that focused on the immediate threat posed by for-profit, Planktos, Inc., a company that plans a series of large-scale iron dumps in international waters. The company has already loaded a ship with iron particles ready to dump, claiming that increasing iron levels in the ocean will stimulate growth of sea plankton. The plankton will take up carbon dioxide and eventually drag it down to the bottom of the sea allowing Planktos to make money from carbon trading. Dr. Janet Cotter, a Senior Scientist at Greenpeace, working in the Dept. of Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter (UK), presented a persuasive science-based rebuttal to the “iron feritilization” rationale.

ETC Group urged governments to examine the potential impacts of geoengineering on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account the precautionary approach. When SBSTTA’s Working Group II convened on Wednesday 4 July (Chaired by Australia’s Annemarie Watt) to discuss draft recommendations on Biodiversity And Climate Change, several governments emphasized the need to address “the impacts of climate change response activities” on biodiversity – including impacts of geoengineering. Norway, Slovenia and Sweden introduced text noting concerns raised by the scientific groups of the London Convention about large-scale iron fertilization activities. The text was (seemingly) non-controversial, and no government spoke against it. Nevertheless, the next day Australia took the lead in torpedoing this and other sections of the draft recommendations, arguing that these issues “extended beyond the mandate of SBSTTA.” Australia’s terse interventions and unconstructive attitude made it increasingly unpopular in the Working Group – (except perhaps with its Chair, a compatriot). Despite strong objections by governments that didn’t want to sacrifice large sections of the draft recommendations, Australia prevailed. Nevertheless, these issues are now on CBD’s radar, and some governments told us they will refuel debate at SBSTTA13 (Rome, February 2008) and at COP9 (Bonn, May 2008).

ETC Group held a second side-event on Terminator 2.0 – A New Generation of Research on Suicide Seeds. We pointed out that there is a very real and dangerous link between suicide seeds and agrofuels. With the threat of climate crisis, Big Ag + Big Oil are teaming up and promoting the idea that society needs a new generation of genetically modified crops and trees to make agrofuels more viable and efficient. But there’s a problem. GE crops and trees won’t be accepted in many countries if the threat of GE contamination persists. Industry will promote seed sterility platforms as the solution – arguing that Terminator or “Zombie” seeds offer a biosafety tool for containing unwanted gene flow from GE plants. This argument is intensifying with the agrofuels boom – and with EU support for the Transcontainer project and its controversial goal of coexistence of GE and non-GE plants. We pointed out that the very same biocontainment strategies that are being developed to prevent the spread of transgenes from GE plants can also be used to control the plant’s reproductive viability and prevent farmers from saving and re-planting harvested seeds.

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Federation of German Scientists explained how molecular biocontainment strategies like Terminator and Zombie seeds are supposed to work and the many reasons they may not (i. e., why they can’t offer fail-safe containment of transgenes). The bottom line is there’s no such thing as a safe or acceptable form of Terminator.

Lucy Mulenkei of Kenya, a member of the Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network, and Ana Filippini (Uruguay) of the World Rainforest Movement shared thoughts on the negative impacts of high-tech “solutions” (e.g., GM crops and tree plantations) they’ve witnessed in their own countries.

Despite SBSTTA’s failure to make strong recommendations – agrofuels, geoengineering and Terminator 2.0 are sure to re-emerge at SBSTTA’s 13th meeting in February 2008 and at the biennial CBD conference – COP9 – in Bonn, Germany (May 2008). Stay tuned.

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