Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-FOOD: More ‘Green’ Goods, Now to Curb Consumption

Johanna Son

MONTREAL, Canada, Oct 26 1996 (IPS) - Swedish consumers buy up half of the European Union’s (EU) imports of pesticide-free bananas. Germany’s baby food products will soon be made entirely from organic sources.

Halfway across the world, a group of 4,000 Mexican farmers have turned to organic production of coffee and with increased income from exports, built community schools of their own. Some 4,000 Ugandan farmers are engaging in organic cotton production — and selling them successfully.

These are examples of how consumers in rich, industrialised countries are demanding green-friendly products, in a bid to reshape consumption trends that will ease pressure on unsustainable production in developing countries.

“If we make changes at the demand end, hopefully we can produce changes in the way they produce things,” one campaigner for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation said.

But while demand for green-friendly products is rising, they touch on but a fraction of international trade that affects the environment in the Southern countries.

The need to curb unsustainable consumption by the North has been discussed in fora like the 1992 Earth Summit, but “five years later, the results are disappointing”, said Meena Rahman of the Malaysia-based Consumer Association of Penang.

Her comments came during a workshop Friday, held as part of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)-sponsored World Conservation Congress, now into its second and final week.

Rahman noted that while Nordic and some other European countries have taken steps to curb excessive consumption, “the other Northern countries — especially Japan and the United States, largest consumers in the world, have shown distinct lack of interest”.

She said much more has to be done to change a global trading system that puts pressure on developing countries to liberalise, in effect pushing the degradation of the environment to fill the North’s unsustainable consumption demands often through the activities of transnational firms.

“While it is true that many products can be made in a manner which is less damaging to the environment, it remains that more and more natural resources still need to be exploited to feed increasing demands,” Rahman explained.

She cited as an example the current export rage in South-east Asia and Central America: shrimp aquaculture for export, an industry that has been growing by 25 per cent a year.

Demand for giant shrimps is rising sharply in Japan, the United States and Europe even as exporting countries like Thailand, India and Ecuador massive areas of mangroves and ricefields into shrimp ponds.

These shrimp farms become unsustainable in five years or so and more often than not benefit big businessmen more than local communities.

Rahman called on Northern consumers on stay away from such shrimp products, saying what was touted as a profitable industry has become into an “environmental and social disaster”.

Since more than 70 per cent of the world’s resources are used by industrialised nations, she explained “there must be a differentiation in responsibility. The burden of adjustment lies with the North”.

Some groups in the North still argue that the it is the South — with faster population growth rates — whose consumption is a threat to sustainability. “People say ‘look at China and India’ – but they consume much less than the North,” she pointed out.

But efforts to change consumption patterns can be tricky, especially when they do not have the intended effect on the developing countries they were originally supposed to help.

Bernward Geier of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements says ensuring “fair trade” in products is as important as environment-friendly production processes, if changes in Northern consumption tastes are to benefit producers of items like organic bananas or coffee.

Other pitfalls of Northern campaigns include falling into the trap of thinking they are cutting excessive consumption when they could actually be talking about “how to consume the same amount with better technology”, said Tariq Banuri of the Pakistan-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

He suggested the North learn from the South in terms of consumption habits and ways of solving problems, disputing common thinking that it is the South than must learn from the ‘advanced’ North.

Banuri also disputed the belief that population growth in the South is posing a threat to sustainability, saying the argument is being used to put an “additional constraint on the South” so that elites in developed and developing countries can continue with wasteful consumption habits.

Others cautioned against moves like buying pesticide-free bananas being used as a non-tariff barrier against exports of developing countries.

Likewise, there is a risk that well-intentioned, green-friendly campaigns can hurt the very communities in developing nations they were supposed to help if they undercut exports or the goods are subjected to boycotts for instance.

Rahman added that though the North is responsible for the bulk of excessive consumption that pressures many Southern countries in feeding its demand at the cost of practices that harm the environment, the South too must be vigilant.

“We must come up with alternatives to show the governments there is another model,” she remarked.

In a paper prepared for the workshop, Anil Agarwal of the India- based Centre for Science and Environment warned that some Southern countries may well be pushing behaviour at home that is also pursued in the North.

“Southern countries are highly divided between the rich and the poor, and their governments are likely to make every effort to maintain the unsustainable consumption levels of the rich sections by bringing in the poor as numbers to claim low per capita consumption on a national level,” Agarwal said.

Rahman and Agarwal urged groups in the industrialised world to work with concerned groups in the South, and together put pressure on Northern governments to accept sustainable consumption patterns.

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ENVIRONMENT-FOOD: More ‘Green’ Goods, Now to Curb Consumption

Johanna Son

MONTREAL, Canada, Oct 22 1996 (IPS) - Swedish consumers buy up half of the European Union’s (EU) imports of pesticide-free bananas. Germany’s baby food products will soon be made entirely from organic sources.

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