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20th Feb 2019

Former UN chief implies EU farm subsidies unfair

  • Former UN boss Kofi Annan: 'In my discussions around the world, I don't get into the GMO debate' (Photo: UN Photo/Elma Okic)

Former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan indirectly criticised the European Union's farming subsidies, in a conversation with journalists in Brussels on Tuesday (28 March).

After his tenure as head of the UN (1997-2006), Annan set up a foundation that carries his name, which has sustainable development and reducing hunger and poverty as some of its main goals. He came to Brussels to hold a keynote speech at an event about agriculture and environment.

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  • A farmer in Kenya. Annan: 'I come from a continent where these poor farmers with limited resources are trying to compete' (Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT).)

Asked about whether he had suggestions for the upcoming reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, he called it “an awkward question”.

“Here I am in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, which provides more subsidies to its farmers than any other region, except perhaps America.”

“And I come from a continent where these poor farmers with limited resources are trying to compete,” said Annan, who was born in Ghana.

He referred to a joke that said the EU “gives enough subsidies to farmers to fly each cow in Europe around the world first class and still have money left over”, and added that farming subsidies in the richer nations of the world posed a “challenge” to Africa.

“We are a continent with all the land, with lots of unemployed, lots of small-scale farmers, most of them women, and yet we import 85 billion dollars of food per year,” said Annan.

The former diplomat said it was sometimes “easier to import tinned tomatoes” than for Africans to grow them locally, and that he would like to see a “global trading system that is fair to everybody, which would allow all regions to develop”.

78-year-old Annan was in Brussels to speak at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture, an event that was co-sponsored by the agrochemical and seed company Syngenta.

With Syngenta one of the world's leading producers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it was no surprise the controversial issue came up several times when Annan spoke to a group of eleven journalists, including EUobserver.

“Science and technology should play a role in raising agriculture productivity, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Annan.

GMOs

“I know there's been lots of debate about genetically modified food. In fact, some people explode when you mention the words genetically modified. In my discussions around the world, I don't get into the GMO debate. I insist that science has to be part of the solution, whether we like it or not.”

European countries are divided over whether GMOs are safe, even when the EU's own European Food and Safety Authority deems them to be so.

Although Annan appeared to be careful not to support or reject GMOs outright, he noted that the ambivalent attitude in Europe towards GMOs carried weight across the world.

He said that when he was UN secretary general, there was a serious drought in Africa. However, governments in the affected countries refused food aid because it included genetically modified ingredients.

“The governments refused the offer because it was GMO and they said that if they accept GMO products it would affect their environment and they would not be able to export agricultural products to Europe,” said Annan.

“The position of Europe on GMOs has [an] impact on other regions, because of their superior knowledge of science. The attitude would be: if Europe has this position, there must be something to it. They must have done their research and we are not going to jump ahead of Europe.”

Annan also commented on the impact agriculture has on climate change – around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the agricultural sector.

Eating insects

Scientists have also found that a plant-based diet is much more climate-friendly and environment-friendly than a diet that includes daily portions of meat.

“Whether we like it or not, I think we are going to be moving away from eating more and more meat. There won't be enough anyway, it will become more expensive,” argued Annan.

He said the world needs to look at “other sources of protein”, and noted that some scientists and dietitians now encourage eating insects. Annan referred to a book titled The Insect Cookbook.

“I did the foreword for them and encourage all of them to try insect-based meals, because of their lighter footprint on the environment,” he said.

Annan also said governments can play a role by providing incentives that favour the cultivation of more climate-friendly products, and by educating citizens. He was however opposed to governments telling people what to eat.

Trump 'will lose'

He was also asked about his opinion on Donald Trump, and the US president's lacklustre approach towards tackling climate change.

“I think he is going to lose,” Annan said about Trump, although he did not elaborate on how this would happen.

“He may not accept climate change but I think the world met in Paris, accepted climate change, and came together with a plan. … The rest of the world will go along, including China.”

Annan argued that people “will demand action”, adding that “If China today is very keen on cleaning up the environment, it's because the people are demanding it. What's the point of having economic prosperity when you cannot breathe?”

“I've always maintained that when leaders fail to lead, the people will lead and make them follow,” he remarked.

The article originally quoted Kofi Annan saying it was sometimes “easier to import ten tomatoes” than for Africans to grow them locally. This was corrected on 6 April 2017. Annan had probably said "tinned tomatoes".

Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals

European Commission proposes changes to the little-known but often used comitology procedure, which results in deadlocks whenever controversial issues like genetically modified organisms are on the table.

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