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Q&A: "It Is Upon Us to Pave the Way for Sustainability"

Interview with Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute

NEW YORK, Jan 24 2008 (IPS) - Anuradha Mittal is an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights and agriculture. In 2004, she founded the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank focused on social, economic and environmental issues.

Anuradha Mittal Credit:

Anuradha Mittal Credit:

A native of India, Mittal is the author of numerous books and essays, including "America Needs Human Rights"; "The Future in the Balance: Essays on Globalisation and Resistance"; "Voices From the South: Third World Speaks Out Against Genetic Engineering"; and "Food Aid or Food Sovereignty: Ending World Hunger in Our Time".

IPS correspondent Rajiv Fernando recently spoke with Mittal about the significance of this weekend&#39s Eighth World Social Forum, and the connection between development and democracy.

IPS: You have been an eloquent advocate of the idea of "economic human rights", and recently wrote that the George W. Bush administration deserves a "failing grade" on this question. Are you hopeful that the situation for poor and working people in the United States can improve with the 2008 elections?

AM: President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt played a key role in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was President Roosevelt who declared that freedom from want is as important as freedom from fear. However, with the start of the Cold War, there was a systematic effort to get rid of the notion of economic, social and cultural rights in the U.S. The problem that we face today is not as simple as getting rid of Bush and his cronies and suddenly we will have a different kind of regime in this country. When we look at the policy positions, whether it is the Democrat or the Republican presidential candidates, one finds the concept and the framework of human rights missing. We cannot forget that it was President [Bill] Clinton who signed the so-called Personal Responsibility Act, the welfare reform – or what some of us would call the welfare deform – act. However, the fact that we&#39re heading into another election is a really good opportunity for advocates of social economic justice, for people involved in any struggle, whether it is for access to clean drinking water, or farm workers&#39 rights or immigrant rights, to bring back the framework of human rights to guide our policy discussions.

IPS: According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an industry group, global biotech crop acreage expanded to 252 million acres in 2006 – 90 percent of it in developing countries. As a critic of biotech, how do you think civil society groups can be most effective in responding to this trend?

AM: ISAAA has been making unsupported claims, inflating its figures and ignoring the negative impacts of GM crops. Its report is nothing but bogus PR tactics. In 2007, it listed Iran as growing 50,000 hectares of commercial GM rice, which is not approved and is not being grown. Romania was listed as growing 100,000 hectares of GM soybean but this crop was banned and the country was being decontaminated to return it to GM-free. ISAAA claims commercial GM crops are a global industry but their own figures showed 99 percent grew in just eight countries in 2006 [the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa]. The range of GM crops also stalled in 1996 when four broad-acre commercial crops – soy, corn, cotton and canola – were first grown. Not one has been added since.

So we have to expose the lies behind ISAAA&#39s claims. This industry has been using the PR tactics of green-washing, poor-washing and hope-dashing – by which I mean, these crops are good for the environment, or we need these crops to feed the hungry, the poor, or we have to depend on this technology if you&#39re going to feed the people because there is no other alternative. So it is really upon us to be proactive and to pave the way forward for sustainable alternatives, which will be good for our lives, good for the earth, air and water and this planet itself. We have to expose the corporate control of our food system and question who owns this technology, who controls it and how it is used.

IPS: A report published by the Oakland Institute says that the problem of hunger in the world is due to the scarcity of democracy and the denial of human rights. Can you elaborate on this?

AM: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, we have enough food today to provide over 2,400 kilo calories per person per day around the world. So the reason we continue to have hunger has nothing to with supernatural causes or with shortage of food production. After all, it is not the shortage of food production that in the U.S. over 36 million Americans are estimated to live in households which are food insecure. My own country, India, is home to nearly half of the world&#39s hungry population. At the same time India is the third largest producer of food in the world.

It is really the social and economic policies which have failed to respect and protect and fulfill our human rights that are behind the epidemic of hunger. It is the absence of living wage jobs which is forcing the working poor to make a choice between a roof over their heads or food on the table. More and more families who are lining up at food banks and soup kitchens already have two or more people employed. Or in countries like India or Brazil, hunger is caused by the failure to implement comprehensive agrarian reform where farmers have control and access over resources such as water, land, seeds. At the same time, the development paradigm based on &#39market will take care of it all&#39, as our report called "Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation?" showed, is dismantling state support systems, which ensured a fixed price to farmers, assuring them of a fixed income, which assured prices for consumers, ensuring that in times of shortages food was still available. All those safety systems have been dismantled, turning food into commodities for trade and commerce.

IPS: The recent Bali climate change conference was described by one Indian newspaper as "the mother of all no-deals". What&#39s your take on the outcome? Are there lessons to be learned there?

AM: The biggest lesson is that we all know that humanity is facing a very imminent threat of climate change. We also know that climate change has the worst impact on the poor and marginalised. At the same time we keep looking for false solutions to climate change, for example, agro-fuels, or what are called bio-fuels, which are diverting food and other valuable resources from the poor, again to cater to consumption patterns of the North.

As long we don&#39t deal with the root causes of the problem, until we are ready to say that the lifestyle in rich countries like the U.S. is negotiable, we will not really see change. Each one of us can compost as much as we want, each one of us can recycle as much as we want, however, until we see policy change at the larger level, until we see governments moving in the direction where there is real commitment to change consumption patterns, to change the way rich countries operate, siphoning off resources from the South, we will not see real change happen.

IPS: You have been a regular at the WSF meetings. How has the event evolved over the years? It seems that this year&#39s decentralised model offers fewer opportunities for activists to network and build a truly international movement.

AM: I have been to three World Social Forums, the last one being in India. I think it&#39s a very exciting opportunity for social movements and organisations from around the world to be in one place – a marketplace for ideas, to share experiences, network. I think this year&#39s idea, especially the day of action, is a very exciting one because it really provides an opportunity to move from a marketplace of ideas to a place of taking action.

There are calls to challenge industrial agriculture to other exciting calls that are being put out by social movements and the grassroots groups. So it is good to see how it has evolved into its decentralised form which offers an opportunity for communities to deal with the real crisis and to come up with solutions, to present alternatives, and to move beyond the call of &#39another world is possible&#39. It&#39s exciting to see what that other world can look like, what action would need to be taken to make that other world a reality.

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