Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle tells US she would be more open to its interests in UN role
Europe's candidate to run the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which guides policymakers around the world, is Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, the former head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It would be a disaster if this corporate-friendly woman were installed in this post.
True to form, she has already said that if she got the job, she would not defend Europe's precautionary approach to GMOs and that she would be more open to US interests.
While at EFSA, Geslain-Lanéelle consistently sided with the GMO industry in public debates about GMO safety, leading the former French Environment minister Corinne Lepage to call for her resignation. Under her directorship EFSA was plagued with accusations of conflicts of interest among its experts, notably involving their affiliations with the industry lobby group ILSI.
The Chinese candidate for the FAO job, Qu Dongyu, when questioned on his views, made a far more precautionary statement about GMOs and pesticides (see article below). While we don't know if this would translate into sensible actions if he got the job, we do know Geslain-Lanéelle's track record strongly suggests that she would not support public health and the environment in this high-profile role.
Candidate to run global food body will 'not defend' EU stance on GM
Julian Borger in Washington and Felicity Lawrence
The Guardian, 2 June 2019
* Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle tells US she would be more open to its interests in UN role
Europe’s candidate to run the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which guides policymakers around the world, has promised the US she will “not defend the EU position” in resisting the global spread of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In a bid for US support, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle told senior US officials at a meeting in Washington on 15 May that under her leadership the FAO would be more open to American interests and accepting of GMOs and gene editing, according to a US official record of the meeting seen by the Guardian.
The issue has been a longstanding point of conflict in trade talks with the EU, which has adopted a far more cautious approach to biotechnology in food and agriculture. All GMO imports are subject to strict safety assessments imposed on a case-by-case basis. Plants and animals whose genome has been manipulated through gene editing are deemed to be GMOs and are subject to similar restrictions. The US portrays such restrictions as trade barriers and has demanded they be dropped.
In the meeting with officials from the US agriculture and state departments, Geslain-Lanéelle, a former director general of the French agriculture and food ministry who also ran the European Food Safety Authority, signalled she would veer to the US side if she ran the FAO.
“She is proud to be European, who she is, and where she comes from; however, she will promote FAO from a global perspective rather than with European Union or French views,” said a US government internal memo.
“She will not defend the EU position on biotechnology and genetically modified organisms. This is not what agriculture needs. She will defend a global project that includes US interests.”
The American team at the meeting was led by Ted McKinney, a Donald Trump appointee as undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, who spent more than three decades working for agrochemical, biotechnology and animal feed companies.
McKinney told Geslain-Lanéelle that “things are terribly skewed in the wrong direction” against biotechnology.
“We are concerned about European pushes to ban glyphosate and cut herbicides,” he said. Glyphosate is a herbicide sold as Roundup, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer has found to be “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
According to the US memo, Geslain-Lanéelle responded by saying a diversity of solutions was needed and that it was important they be science-based.
The French candidate also promised to hire a US deputy director if she won the top job, in a contest to be decided at the end of June.
In the meeting with US officials, Geslain-Lanéelle said she had taken the same position in public in front of the EU and was “reiterating her public commitment”.
Asked for comment about Geslain-Lanéelle’s offer to Washington, her campaign manager at the French agriculture ministry, Hervé Durand, and the French embassy in Washington pointed to public remarks she had made when candidates put their case to a FAO plenary meeting in April.
“Biotechnology is also very useful,” she said at the April meeting. “I will support biotechnologies, of course, including GMO and gene editing. I think it’s important.”
The remarks have a more measured tone than the version presented to the US, but are significantly more pro-GMO than her main rival for the job, the Chinese candidate, Qu Dongyu. When challenged on his views by a US representative at the April plenary, Qu said he wanted to answer the concerns of civil society and the public about the technologies.
Qu added: “We have to be careful, or responsible, for any new products, not only GMO, other products for pesticide, for chemicals, even for fertilisers. We have to consider their biosafety, their environment influence.”
At a time of climate emergency, the FAO’s importance, as the agency charged with tackling hunger and ensuring global food security, has grown. It pools and circulates scientific knowledge and best practice and advises governments on policy. The US has an important say in deciding its new leader, as it provides 22% of its regular funding.
Olivier De Schutter, a former UN rapporteur on the right to food and chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, said the leaked note reflected the fight between the US vision for agriculture and the European one. “It’s a battle for control of food in the world. US companies remain dominant in the biotech sector which promotes an industrialised model of agriculture and the US defends its agrochemical and seeds companies. In Europe public opinion is more and more in favour of a different agriculture that is less reliant on agrochemicals inputs,” he said.
The FAO has a strategic role in setting the agenda for global agriculture. “The FAO has a very important influence because it guides what governments should prioritise, particularly in developing countries,” De Schutter said. “This shows it’s vital to have more transparency about how these appointments are made.”
Timothy Wise, a senior research fellow at the Small Planet Institute and the author of a new book, Eating Tomorrow, said: “While it is certainly understandable that candidates for the leadership of the FAO would endorse the agency’s commitment to using ‘all tools in the toolbox’ to fight global hunger, it would be unfortunate if any candidate reduced his or her ambition for the agency to the low standards of the US government.
“We need a forward-looking leader prepared to help shift global agriculture on to a more sustainable path while respecting nations’ sovereign right to determine how they feed their residents.”