Keynote Address of Undersecretary Tan for the International Conference on Golden Rice

International Conference on Golden Rice
02 April 2018 (Day 01) | Madison 101 Hotel, Quezon City

Members of international and national civil society organizations, co-workers in the national and local government, farmers’ and consumers’ organizations, local and regional people’s alliances, church groups, development partners, the media, and the academe, good morning.

On behalf of Secretary Liza Maza, Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), I am pleased and honored to welcome you to the International Conference on Golden Rice and to the Multi-stakeholder and Interagency Dialogue on Golden Rice, the second of a series of dialogues on Golden Rice sponsored by the NAPC. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), through the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), renewed their application for Golden Rice field testing and direct use in February 2017. As a response to the requests of peasant organizations for dialogue, the NAPC facilitated a civil society roundtable forum in August 2017 in collaboration with the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura, Inc. or MASIPAG.

The dialogue served as an important platform for grassroots peasant networks, health professionals, consumer rights groups, organic advocates, farmers’ organizations, and representatives of government agencies to discuss in-depth issues and concerns revolving around the application for Golden Rice field testing and direct use as food and other purposes in the Philippines.

Among the issues that were raised in the multi-stakeholder and interagency dialogue are the lack of genuine people’s participation, lack of transparency and access to information, absence of risk assessment procedures and guidelines by the government, lack of public knowledge on scientific studies related to nutrition, health, and environment which backs the safe use of Golden Rice for public consumption, and a host of other concerns related to socio-economic, cultural and ethical considerations in the direct use of Golden Rice. Results of the public dialogue were submitted as public comment on the Golden Rice, which were then forwarded to PhilRice and the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture, both of which are main agencies overseeing the field-testing of Golden Rice in the Philippines. The proceedings were also drafted as public comment and submitted to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Our agency is committed to facilitate continuing public consultations and multi-stakeholder dialogues to further understand these issues. he NAPC is mandated to recommend policy and other measures to address issues on poverty alleviation. Under our anti-poverty framework and the Kilos SAMBAYANAN or Kilos para sa Sampung Batayang Pangangailangan approach, NAPC asserts that government projects should be anchored on the provision of the '10 Basic Needs' of Filipinos: food and land reform, water, shelter, work, education, healthcare, social protection, healthy environment, peace and participation. Kilos SAMBAYANAN is a call for convergence and a commitment among all sectors of society, all national and local government agencies, to address poverty based on a universal, multi-dimensional and rights-based approach.

The NAPC also draws particular attention to issues surrounding the most basic of needs: food including the deprivation of the right to food for many Filipinos; the continuing lack of food security in the country; and the peasant’s struggle for genuine agrarian reform, which remains the bedrock policy for ensuring food security and one of the necessary structural reforms for reversing underdevelopment and inequality in the country.

We are one with our basic sectors, and one with you here today in asserting the basic right to food. The right to food, has been recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and other binding international instruments.

And yet, the right to food remains one of the most violated rights globally. In the Philippines, as much as 50 to 60 million Filipinos may be considered poor when a multi-dimensional view of poverty is considered. Official government data show that some 21.9 million Filipinos or 21.6 percent of the population are poor.

Golden Rice is a genetically modified rice variety that was engineered to address malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. However, we should address vitamin A deficiency as a symptom of poverty. The issues that were surfaced in the August 2017 dialogue on the Golden Rice field-testing and direct use reveal the socio-economic, political, and cultural impacts of genetically-modified crops to communities and the economy. The fear of expanding corporate control in agriculture, with biotech corporations using golden rice as channel to become giant agro-enterprises in the rice industry, is a reality that governments should seriously face and address. We are aware of the adverse impact and the grave casualties of increasing corporate control over seeds, lands and other agricultural resources. We are aware of the thousands of farmers in various parts of Asia who have succumbed to suicide over the past decade due to intense debt arising from corporate monopoly over seeds and other agricultural inputs. In this line, it is imperative to weigh in the implications of the recent approval of international regulatory bodies in Health Canada and Australia despite the ongoing debate on Golden Rice globally.

Two decades of global civil society opposition that has impeded the planned commercialization of Golden Rice in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia is a clear testament to the strength of organized people’s organizations movement to assert their right to food sovereignty and to continue the struggle against corporate control over the world’s food systems.

As both a government official and staunch advocate of farmers’ rights, women’s rights and sustainable agriculture, I would like to offer some lessons I learned from our peasant leaders and colleagues in civil society and government who are advocates of food sovereignty and sustainable agricultural development:

First, we must intensify our assertion that food is a basic human right—in advancing our advocacy and campaigns for food sovereignty and sustainable agroecological farming, and in promoting our campaigns against corporate control of agriculture and our food systems. The privatization of food-producing inputs such as soil, seeds and water, and the absolute commodification of the food follows the ideological stance that market-based resource distribution is more efficient than a rights-based approach for such vital resources. We need to challenge this corporate narrative. We should also look at our mainstream development narrative because even the Sustainable Development Goals, which explicitly recognizes the right to water and sanitation and the universal access to health and education, do not explicitly state the right to food. We need to popularize a rights-based narrative that places food squarely as a human right and a public good.

We need to reassess using only a needs-based approach that assumes people who lack access to food are passive recipients in need of direct assistance without government obligations. A rights-based approach to food security and nutrition demands government accountability, active engagement of food insecure people in policy governance, universal access to policies, legal redress mechanisms, and additional binding connections between policies and outcomes.

Second, alongside challenging the existing food systems where profit from agricultural production prevails, we need to clearly present our alternatives. Over the years, we have witnessed the power of organized farmers, fisherfolks, women, national and international NGOs in pushing for a food system that is sustainable based on the principles of agroecology and recognizes the importance of the role of small farmers and local communities. The advocacy efforts of our farmers, indigenous people and rural women are slowly being recognized and integrated into national and international discourses, and in policy formulation in achieving food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Many local government officials and mayors who, through our advocates, passed local ordinances prompting organic farming. CNN Philippines cited four women who are changing Philippine agriculture, two of whom are peasant leaders: Ms. Angie Ipong of Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) and Ms. Zen Soriano of AMIHAN (National Federation of Peasant Women).

During the Multi-Stakeholder Consultations on Agroecology in Asia and the Pacific in 2016, which was a follow up to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s international symposium on agroecology for food security and nutrition in 2014, participants called on governments, decision-makers, technical and financial partners to:

• Empower smallholder farmers as priority to end hunger and achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability;
• Promote a new paradigm of agriculture that is not solely focused on production but on people’s rights and needs; promote a shift from chemical-dependence farming to agroecology;
• Ensure, recognize, respect and uphold small-scale food producers’ and communities, rights to land, water, seeds, forests, commons, biodiversity and territory.

In the agreed conclusions released last March 23 by the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s during its 62nd Session: the CSW UN member states to:

• Strengthen sustainable production and consumption patterns, respect and protect traditional and ancestral knowledge and practices of rural women—in particular the preservation, production, use and exchange of endemic and native seeds—and support alternatives to the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides harmful to the health of rural women and girls in their communities;
• Invest and strengthen efforts to empower rural women as important actors in achieving food security and improved nutrition while ensuring the people’s right to food is met

Currently, a UN declaration on the ‘rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas’ is being lobbied based on the recommendations and conclusions presented by rural workers, indigenous peoples, and NGOs to UN representatives. This declaration, according to its proponents, tackles the need for food security to end poverty and hunger, to make the earth ecologically safe for the next generation, and to create an equitable food system.

Third, the strength of our advocacy rests on the strength of our farmers’ organizations, the key and decisive force in our quest for food sovereignty and sustainable rural development. Therefore, one of our major and fundamental tasks is still helping build and expand strong organizations of farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, and rural women; and strengthening alliances with scientists, consumer groups, academic and research institutions, and people in government.

Fourth, the government needs to be genuine in the realization of its rationale and it must ensure that those who toil the land are not landless and those who feed us are not hungry; the farmers who comprise the majority and are center of our society should not be marginalized. The broader society must uphold farmers’ rights and causes to advance genuine social change and progress. Technological advancements in food and agriculture will only prove worthy if it serves the farmers and the people.

We, at NAPC, are one with the organizations here today in asserting that a farmer-led and sustainable agriculture that puts farmers’ knowledge and experience, farmers’ control of seeds and agricultural resources, and strong farmers’ organizations are key ingredients to achieving food sovereignty and sustainable agricultural development.

We also believe that rice is central to our culture in Asia and thousands of rice varieties developed over time are testaments to the diversity and richness of our culture and roots of our identity. We must let it thrive and not be monopolized. Seed and land are the heart of our farmers’ freedom and future. It is fundamental in our quest to forge not only a more sustainable food system, but also a more just and humane society.

And so, I would like to end my message by quoting, Ka Virgie Nazareno, one of our women farmer leaders in the Quezon province:

“Land, farmers and food systems must be liberated from the control of corporate greed, GMOs and toxic products to combat malnutrition, hunger and poverty.” Farmers’ right to land, seed and practices of sustainable and ecological agriculture must be supported to ensure safe, nutritious food and a thriving healthy ecology for all.”

It is my fervent hope that our gathering in the next few days will help us better understand the issues at hand, energize us with inspiring stories, strategically plan and connect local struggles with regional and global struggles, so that we can forge our partnerships and continue to work together for a sustainable, resilient, and people-centered food system.

Thank you very much.

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