In mid-February, internal government emails revealed behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts on the part of CropLife America urging US officials to pressure Mexico to abandon its recently announced plans to ban glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s (now Bayer’s) flagship weedkiller Roundup. This revelation of the lengths CropLife is willing to go to undermine independent government decisions comes on the heels of a contentious announcement that CropLife International and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are proposing a formalized partnership.
CropLife International (CLI) is the global trade association representing the interests of corporations that produce and promote pesticides. Its members include BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, FMC and Syngenta. Over a third of these corporations’ sales come from highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), pesticides that are behind some of the most egregious poisoning cases and environmental destruction.
FAO’s unprecedented move to formalize its collaboration with CropLife provoked an immediate and sharp rebuke from civil society, independent scientists and researchers, and philanthropic organizations from around the world.
Mobilizing global pressure to “Stop the Toxic Alliance”
In November, over 350 civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organizations from 63 countries signed onto a letter to FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu urging him to stop FAO’s announced plans to deepen collaboration with CLI. The letter outlined the documented harms from HHPs that CropLife member corporations are well known for aggressively marketing, specifying Syngenta’s herbicide paraquat, one of the most acutely toxic pesticides in the world, Corteva’s brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos, Bayer’s neonicotinoid imidacloprid that has devastated pollinator populations, and BASF’s bee-killing fipronil.
An international group of 250 scientists and researchers delivered a similar letter of concern on the same day. While Director-General Qu did respond to these letters, he did not adequately address the central concerns raised. Soon after, a group of 47 foundations and donor networks delivered their own letter of concern, to which Director-General Qu has yet to respond.
Dissatisfied with the Director-General’s response, PAN International requested a meeting to discuss civil society’s concerns. When two meeting requests went unanswered, PAN North America (PANNA) and PAN Asia Pacific (PAN-AP) brought together the 11 co-sponsoring groups of the November letter to send a formal meeting request, underscoring the dangers of this proposed partnership:
A recent study estimates that there are 385 million cases of acute pesticide poisonings each year… about 44% of the global population working on farms — 860 million farmers and agricultural workers – are poisoned each year by an industry dominated by CropLife members. Thus, it is hard for us to imagine how FAO’s “objectives of supporting sustainable agriculture production, preserving biodiversity and human health” can be served by an alliance with CropLife International, especially in the absence of effective safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest.
A glaring conflict of interest
There is no denying that CLI member companies’ primary goal is to maximize profits through the sale of pesticides, agrochemicals, seeds and genetic material, specifically targeting countries in the Global South. Its public messaging of “environmentally friendly” technology and biotechnology innovation provides cover for its agenda of boosting sales through chemical-intensive inputs, from genetically modified (GM) seeds to their associated chemical pesticides, ensuring profit from an ever-escalating pesticide treadmill.
The FAO is tasked with promoting sustainable agriculture and access to food through addressing inequities in the food system to achieve zero hunger. A formal partnership with CLI would undermine FAO’s priority of minimizing the harms of chemical pesticide use worldwide, “including the progressive ban of highly hazardous pesticides.”
It also undermines FAO’s Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management, which stipulates the prohibition of importation, distribution, sale and purchase of HHPs based on risk assessment of harms to humans and the environment.
The conflict of interest here could not be more glaring: the proposed formal alliance with CLI ties the FAO with producers of harmful, unsustainable chemical technologies.
Agroecology or “bluewashing,” FAO?
CropLife’s actions urging US trade officials to pressure Mexico to rescind its decision to end the use of glyphosate are familiar industry tactics. Indeed, Bayer and chemical industry lobbyists killed a glyphosate ban planned in Thailand in 2019, after US threats of trade disruption.
The FAO risks its integrity, credibility, impartiality, and neutrality by strategically aligning with CLI. Instead, FAO should robustly support countries that are banning glyphosate and other HHPs as a means to improve climate resilience and increase farmer access to practices and tools that help them grow their crops sustainably without harming their health.
If FAO moves forward with this strategic alliance with CLI, it paves the way for even more “bluewashing” — giving the pesticide industry cover and credibility through their association with a UN agency.
FAO leaders have a dire choice to make. Will they maintain the agency’s role as a global leader supporting innovative approaches to farming that promote the right to adequate food in the context of national food security, sustainability and resilience? Or will they give pesticide corporations their stamp of approval for the deadly consequences of pesticides? PAN and our partners are pressing hard to convince them to do the right thing: Stop the toxic alliance.