Round Table on Responsible Soy

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The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is a big agribusiness-led forum that claims to want to make soy production more environmentally and socially responsible. RTRS will launch its "responsible" soy label in Europe in the first half of 2011.[1] Controversially, the wildlife conservation group WWF is a founder member of the RTRS (see below).

Contents

Background to the RTRS

The social and environmental problems with soy cultivation in South America are many and serious. They include deforestation of the Amazon rainforest for the planting of soy monocultures, soil erosion and depletion, destruction of biodiversity, and rural depopulation and poverty. Most controversially, most of the soy grown in South America is genetically modified Roundup Ready soy, which brings all the risks associated with GM foods in general. Added to these risks are the problems caused by the aerial spraying of Roundup (glyphosate) and other herbicides, which cause health problems in rural people and their livestock and animals, and poison water supplies and soil.[2]

In recognition of these problems, in 2004 WWF Switzerland and the Swiss retailer Coop developed the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production, through the medium of the consultancy ProForest.[3] The Basel Criteria had strict protections for the rainforest and also required that Basel-Certified soy be non-GM.[4]

RTRS launched

WWF subsequently abandoned that part of the Basel Criteria that specified non-GM soy. It initiated the RTRS in 2005, quickly bringing in Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, Bunge, and other corporations.

The stated aim of the RTRS was to help the industry move towards more sustainable practice.[5][6]

The 1st Conference of the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy took place on 17 and 18 March 2005 in a 5-star hotel in Foz do Iguazú, Brazil. During these two days around 200 people debated about soy production. Among the participants were representatives of transnationals involved in soy production, manufacture and trade like Unilever, Monsanto, Bunge, Carrefour as well as conservation NGOs such as Conservation International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Nature Conservancy.[7]

During the conference, civil society organizations held a counter-conference in Foz de Iguazú to discuss the problems caused by soy production. They concluded that “sustainability and monoculture are fundamentally irreconcilable, as are the interests of peasant societies and agribusiness.”[8]

"Responsible soy"

In 2007, the Dutch NGO Solidaridad was invited to be a member of RTRS and took a seat on the board. Solidaridad says:

The ultimate aim [of RTRS] is to increase the proportion of verifiably responsible soy on the market (it is now one percent). In 2007, a special committee was appointed by the Round Table to determine the international criteria for responsible soy.[9]

The idea of the project is that soy approved by the RTRS would carry a label reassuring buyers and consumers that the product was sustainably and ethically produced.

Also in 2007 the RTRS established a “responsibility standard” that could also be applied to GM soy, stating:

The principles, criteria and indicators will be developed with the potential to be implemented by committed stakeholders in the soy value chain regardless of size of operation or geographical location, and with the intention to be used within a verification system. They will not prescribe a particular technology or patented item.[10]

Legitimizing unsustainability?

Critics of the RTRS have pointed out that it is not possible for the forum to achieve responsibility standards when it is heavily funded by corporations with a poor environmental record. What is more, the RTRS will actively militate against sustainability by giving its rubber-stamp of approval to destructive soy production. ASEED, an NGO and critic of the RTRS, says:

organisations and movements from across Latin America have criticised the very existence of the Round Table saying it merely seeks to legitimise the irresponsible and unsustainable practice of industrial soy production and justify even greater expansion, regardless of the human and environmental costs.[11]

ASEED says the RTRS criteria will not benefit growers or consumers, but only the industry:

Evidence from so-called "responsible soy" projects in Paraguay suggests that the Round Table will make little difference to the day-to-day activities of soy producers. The criteria being put forward are too weak, too superficial and to narrow focused on technical issues to make a real difference to the social and environmental damage being done by soy. In addition, the economical impunity of the agribusiness in the producing countries makes it unlikely that even these weak "sustainable" measures are to be enforced.
But the criteria, which incomprehensibly have the backing of some conservation NGOs, will be hugely beneficial to the soy producers seeking to provide reassurance to European governments and consumers who are concerned by the damage being done. The Round Table‘s criteria will provide a valuable coat of greenwash, legitimising the damaging practice on the ground.[12]

Don't mention the GM word

Increasingly, critics of the RTRS believe that the participants are attempting to obscure the GM issue by turning up the volume on issues around climate change and so-called sustainability. They hope that people will lose sight of the GM issue behind the green smokescreen of "sustainable soy".

The RTRS's omission of GM soy from its "responsibility criteria" has angered some farmer and civil society organizations in soy-growing countries. This is because most of the soy grown in South America is GM and the massive expansion of GM soy planting in the region has directly caused many of the problems claimed to be addressed by the RTRS. FETRAF, a Brazilian family farmers‘ organisation, pulled out of the RTRS because it was not sufficiently addressing its concerns, including the production of GM soy.[13]

GM soy not sustainable

WWF defends its discussion of GM at the RTRS by saying that "GM soy is already present in the environment".[14] But as angry former supporters of WWF told GMWatch[15], WWF could use the same justification to start discussions of sustainable nuclear power plants, deforestation, human trafficking or child labour.

WWF also says, "the key question ... is how to reduce the major environmental and social impacts of soy cultivation, including impacts of GM soy".[16] But this is total sophistry. GM soy is fundamentally NOT sustainable. As the Argentinian agronomist Walter Pengue and the Berkeley agro-ecologist Miguel Altieri note:

The production of herbicide-resistant soybean leads to environmental problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, pesticide and genetic contamination. Socio-economic consequences include severe concentration of land and income, the expulsion of rural populations to the Amazonian frontier and to urban areas, compounding the concentration of the poor in cities. Soybean expansion also diverts government funds otherwise usable in education, health, and alternative, far more sustainable agroecological methods.[17]

Monsanto, Syngenta: Out from the shadows at last

Subsequent to the RTRS's first meeting, GM firms Monsanto and Syngenta seem not to have been openly involved and as of January 2009 they were not listed among the RTRS's corporate partners. In the light of this, some observers thought that getting GM soy (as opposed to soy in general) accepted as sustainable was not part of the RTRS's agenda. After all, the declared corporate members of the RTRS, ADM, Bunge, and Cargill, trade in all soy, be it GM or non-GM.

However, as commodity processors and traders, ADM, Bunge and Cargill do not want to have to segregate GM from non-GM soy, as European markets require. In addition, these companies have significant biotechnology interests, with regard to research and development of biofuels crops and other agricultural products.[18] So for these several reasons, it could be seen as in their interests to have GM soy made more acceptable to European consumers via the RTRS "sustainable soy" label.

Certainly, when it came to the RTRS, ADM, Bunge and Cargill were moving as if in lock-step with the interests of the big GM firms. Monsanto and Syngenta were like the invisible ghosts at the feast: perhaps there but hidden, perhaps not there at all.

Then in early February 2009, Christopher Wells, president of the RTRS, suddenly announced that Monsanto and Syngenta had joined its executive board.[19] Announcing this move on the GMWatch listserv, GMWatch editor Jonathan Matthews commented, "Out from the shadows at last ..."[20]

Lack of transparency

Participants at the 1st Conference of the RTRS in 2005 "agreed on an open, transparent, multi-sectoral and participatory process".[21]

But this is belied by what happened to an attempted protest around the 3rd Round Table on Responsible Soy in Buenos Aires in May 2008. It was caught on camera and the resulting video (in 2 parts) shows clearly that the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is neither transparent nor inclusive of the people most directly affected by GM soy.[22]Civil society groups and farmers who traveled from Paraguay to the event were denied access to the hotel conference hall where the forum was taking place. They were told that they had to register in advance and pay $400 to get in – a sum, as one protestor pointed out, that many of them had never seen in their lives. Finally, they were ejected from the building by police.

Corporate members of the RTRS

As of January 2009 the RTRS had 32 members from industry, banks and supermarkets, including the major crushers ADM, Bunge and Cargill, and large-scale soy producers. All have interests in keeping up the expansion of soy monocultures in South America. Here is a partial list of corporate members:

ACSOJA | Akzo-Nobel | Aprosoja (former member - left in 2009) | Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) | Biofuels Corporation Trading Ltd. | BioPetrol Trading Zug AG | BP International | Bunge | Campina | Cargill | Carrefour | Danisco | EOP Biodiesel AG | Greenergy International | Marks & Spencer | Rabobank | Shell International | Somerfield Stores | Swedish Dairy Association | TM Chemicals LP | Wageningen University and Research Centre (Plant Sciences Group) | Unilever | [23]

In February 2009, Monsanto and Syngenta were added to the list of corporate members.[24]

From January to May 2010 the RTRS added 11 new members: EWOS (Norway), Centre for Environmental Policy Imperial College London (UK), Vrutti (India), Dutch Food Retail Association (The Netherlands), AB Agri (UK), Wilmar International (Singapore), ForFarmers (The Netherlands), ASDA (UK), Waitrose (UK), Migros (Switzerland), Riasio (Finland).[25]

Members leave RTRS

In April 2010 the RTRS lost one of its key members when the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (ABIOVE) disappeared from the RTRS membership list. According to TraceConsult, “ABIOVE will not go public with this information as they do not intend to discredit the RTRS.”[26]

Another important RTRS member, Aprosoja, representing large Brazilian soy producers, left in 2009 because of the "deforestation clause" included in the RTRS's basic set of Principles and Criteria.[27]

Civil society organization members of the RTRS

As of January 2009 civil society organization members of the RTRS include the WWF, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and Solidaridad.[28]

As of February 2009, Action for Social Advancement (ASA) has joined the list of civil society organization members.

Open letter calls for the RTRS to be abandoned

In May 2009 over 230 organizations from across the world signed an open letter[29] to the participants of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) calling for it to be abandoned. They took this action because criteria to be launched by the Round Table in late May 2009 encourage soy monocultures, seek to include GM soy as sustainable and are too weak to protect vital ecosystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco.

The open letter is very critical of the RTRS proposals for allowing:

  • GM soy to be included and continue unchecked
  • Expansion of soy monocultures
  • Continuing damage to major forest and other ecosystems
  • Major social, health and human rights issues to go unchallenged

Signatories of the letter include Friends of the Earth International, Global Forest Coalition, the Scottish Green Party, Soya Alliance, the Soil Association, and Via Campesina European Coordination, as well as GM Freeze and GMWatch.

RTRS corporate members include Marks and Spencer, Unilever, Somerfield (now owned by the Co-op), Danisco, Carrefour (a French supermarket chain), Ahold (a Dutch supermarket chain), BP International and Shell International. Major companies driving soy expansion and GM crops are also members, including Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta.

The Pact with the Panda - documentary

A documentary by the German film maker Wilfried Huismann, called “The Pact with the Panda” (also known in English publications as The Silence of the Pandas), included an exposé of WWF's collaboration with Monsanto in promoting GM soy through the RTRS.[30]

The film also reported growing concerns about the health risks of Roundup, the herbicide that is sprayed in large amounts on GM Roundup Ready soy.[31] In 2010, Argentine scientists published research showing that Roundup causes birth defects in frogs and embryos at far lower concentrations than those used in farming.[32]

To watch an English-dubbed version of Huismann's film, see:

For press coverage and comment about Wilfried Huismann's film, The Pact with the Panda, see:

WWF's response to Huismann's film:

Contact

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http://www.responsiblesoy.org/

Resources

Notes

  1. RTRS, Welcome, acc 7 Mar 2011
  2. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, accessed January 2009.
  3. "The Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production", WWF website, 22 September 2004, accessed February 2009.
  4. "The Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production", downloadable as a pdf from The Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production, August 2004, Vers. 2005-02-16, p. 5, WWF website, accessed February 2009.
  5. "Who We Are", Round Table on Responsible Soy Association website, accessed January 2009.
  6. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, p. 8, accessed January 2009.
  7. "Roundtable On Sustainable Soy: some familiar faces", Alotau Environment website, June 17, 2005, accessed February 2009.
  8. "Final Document of the Iguazú Counter Conference on the Impacts of Soya and Monocultures", ITEPA (Technological and Educational Institute for Agrarian Reform), San Miguel de Iguazú, Brazil, 16-18 March 2005, accessed January 2009.
  9. "Solidaridad Annual report 2007", Solidaridad, March 2008, accessed January 2009.
  10. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, p. 17, accessed February 2009.
  11. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, accessed January 2009.
  12. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, p. 3, accessed January 2009.
  13. "The Round Table on Ir-Responsible Soy: Certifying Soy Expansion, GM Soy and Agrofuels" ASEED Europe, April 2008, p. 9, accessed January 2009.
  14. WWF Statement on the "GM Soy Debate", WWF website, 12 Dec 08, acc 17 May 2010
  15. Emails sent to GMWatch.
  16. WWF Statement on the "GM Soy Debate", WWF website, 12 Dec 08, acc 17 May 2010
  17. Miguel Altieri and Walter Pengue, "GM Soybean: Latin America's New Coloniser", GRAIN, January 2006, accessed January 2009.
  18. See, for example, "IGENE Biotechnology and ADM Form Joint Venture", BioSpace website, 12 January 2009, accessed February 2009.
  19. "RTRS accepts Syngenta and Monsanto, and ASA from India as members", Email from Christopher Wells, President, Executive Board, Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS), received by GMWatch 7 February 2009.
  20. Email bulletin, "Out from the shadows at last", GMWatch listserv, 7 February 2009.
  21. "Agreement reached on finding solutions for responsible soy production", WWF website, 18 March 2005, accessed January 2009.
  22. "Protests around the 3rd Round Table on Responsible Soy - May 2008", GRAIN, accessed January 2009.
  23. "RTRS members", RTRS website, accessed January 2009.
  24. "RTRS accepts Syngenta and Monsanto, and ASA from India as members", Email from Christopher Wells, President, Executive Board, Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS), received by GMWatch 7 February 2009.
  25. Did you know that the RTRS…, RTRS website, acc 17 May 2010
  26. Corporate Europe Observatory, Round Table on Responsible Soy suffers setbacks, soy industry steps up lobbying, 8 Apr 2010, acc 17 May 2010
  27. Corporate Europe Observatory, Round Table on Responsible Soy suffers setbacks, soy industry steps up lobbying, 8 Apr 2010, acc 17 May 2010
  28. "RTRS members", RTRS website, accessed January 2009.
  29. "Letter of critical opposition to the “Round Table on Responsible Soy”", bangmfood.org website, accessed 16 May 2009
  30. Wilfried Huismann. 2011. Der Pakt mit dem Panda – Was uns der WWF verschweigt. YouTube.
  31. Wilfried Huismann. 2011. Der Pakt mit dem Panda – Was uns der WWF verschweigt. YouTube.
  32. Paganelli A, Gnazzo V, Acosta H, López SL, Carrasco AE. 2010. Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by impairing retinoic acid signaling. Chem Res Toxicol 23: 1586–1595.
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