My father was traveling all the time, so he would be away for two weeks at a time, and my brother and I were on our own. That made us very independent very early, which in retrospect was quite good, in a way. I mean, it really gave us a lot of independence. I went to high school when I wanted to, which was not very often. I did all kinds of special projects and tests.
My father was in business. He was the vice president of the Singer Company in Western Canada. Do you remember the Singer sewing machines? When I was young, you’d have several stores in every city selling those sewing machines. Now there are none, of course. It’s all gone; it’s the end of that time. But at that time, my father was in charge of 30 or 40 Singer stores in different places. I thought, “I’m never going to do business.” It was just too boring. I just couldn’t imagine why would I spend my life doing that.
I mean, I love my father. He was a fine man who really exposed us to magazines like Time and Newsweek, Life, National Geographic; really radical stuff! But we debated the issues, at least. My grandmother had given us a subscription to National Geographic magazine. We took the maps out of that and my mother was very forgiving and let us paper the walls of the house in maps. So we had maps of every part of the world in the dining room, in the living room, in the kitchen, in the hallways, in the bathroom, in the bedrooms, they were everywhere. My brother and I were always fascinated by everything in the world that way. So I think I always felt like I lived in the world more than I lived as a Canadian or anything else. It was just absolutely natural for me. My father always encouraged us to listen to the news and debate political issues. We always debated politics with him. When he was home, we sat around on the weekends and argued all the time, in a good way. He was a good liberal and a lovely man. But the only thing I could imagine doing was trying to change the world or something. Not that I assumed I was going to have a global presence of any kind, but whatever I did had to be not just addressing a domestic issue, but rather addressing a wider issue.
Back in 1963, when I was still in high school, Kennedy had organised the World Food Congress in Washington, 20 years after the first World Food Congress which Roosevelt had organised during the Second World War, which set up the FAO and led to the Rome-based agencies. Kennedy had wanted to convene another one. I remember watching it on the evening television and memorizing Kennedy’s speech. The key line was, “We have the means, we have the capacity to erase hunger and poverty from the face of the Earth in our lifetime.” And I believed it. I thought, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So that was my whole focus: to feed the hungry. It wasn’t because I lived on the prairies, where we grow our food in Canada. I didn’t grow up on a farm. My grandparents did, but I didn’t. I didn’t have any particularly close relationship to agriculture. It was just that message. It was more the image of Kennedy at that time, in 1963, and me being 15 years of age and being in awe of that clear and simple message. My mother, who was a housewife, died when I was 15.
At some point I read The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith, a book about the Irish potato famine. The last part talks about when the Irish came to North America, both to Boston and to Montreal in Canada, and how they were used for work and so on. And how they were treated. The language that the author uses to describe the Irish in North America is exactly the language that we use now to describe First Nations or Aboriginal peoples in North America. It is exactly the same language: “Drunk,” you know. “Won’t work properly; can’t think properly; they just get together and drink,” you know. “Superstitious,” all that kind of imagery. My family had come over from Ireland generations ago because of the famine. I had an uncle that told me stories about how we lost 14 relatives to the famine along the way. It’s a bit bullshit to suggest that these great-great-grandparents that I never knew and that no one ever really talked about were important in my life or something. It’s not that. Rather, it’s that the story of the famine is an account of how the rich treat the poor. It’s a story about genetic erosion, because the potato crop was genetically uniform and was wiped out. It was imposed by the imperialists upon a colony, the Irish. But I read that long before, a decade before I knew anything about seeds, so that didn’t initially strike me. The whole story about aid, food aid and food for work, and awful things like the Irish being given corn by the United States so they’d use it to feed livestock and how it tore up their guts because they couldn’t cook it properly, and how they were given little booklets, little brochures on how to cook the corn, but it was in English – they couldn’t read, and especially couldn’t read English – telling them how to use the utensils that they had in their homes. It was such a microcosm of how things worked, how aid is dealt with in any society, in any time in history, I think, including right now. I remember, and this is an example of how – what’s the term, “overcompensation” for something?
When I first went to high school, I was 15, and I was very good at persuading my teachers to let me take on special projects outside of school and so on. I thought “Oh, I’ve got to organise a club for my high school!” I got involved in the United Nations Association in Canada, at that time by no means a progressive organisation, but very open to young people. My first act was to persuade high school students to campaign for UNICEF, of all things! I don’t know if you have this in Mexico, but in Canada, for our so-called Halloween or All Soul’s Day, the kids go door to door. What kids did then was to take these big boxes for UNICEF and go and collect money as well as candy. I challenged high school students in Canada, 15, 16, 17, 18 years of age, to do the same thing: to work for UNICEF. It was a big thing about how you are not too young to help save the world, and we were hugely successful. We got lots and lots and lots of money! Since I was really good at raising money, while still in high school, I was invited to represent the Student Christian Movement and the YMCA in Canada at the World Federation of Democratic Youth Conference. I wasn’t even Christian, but I thus became the delegate to a “KGB” version of the youth movement (at the time there were two youth movements in the world: The World Federation of Democratic Youth was the “KGB” and the World Assembly of Youth was the “CIA”), went to Vienna and never returned to school.
At that time, in the sixties, if you dropped out of high school and had long hair and blue jeans, you were a prime candidate to work for the United Nations. They were all looking for youth, and there I was: the classic image of a high school dropout hippie. January 1966 was my first time overseas. I went to this Vienna conference and then I went to Rome. I had 70 dollars to live on for three weeks, so I talked to everyone I knew and went to stay with them. The only person I knew in Rome was a guy who had worked for the United Nations Association in Canada, who was working at the FAO. I got invited to see the director general of the FAO, who asked me if I’d be a youth consultant to him on a voluntary basis. I said sure, and that anchored my life a bit to the Rome-based agencies and to the food issue even more. At the time, my view was still that we had to feed the world, and we had to solve the problem of world hunger, and it really was our job to fundraise and convince people to do what they were supposed to do.
That was back in the days of Marshall McLuhan, between 1967 and 1970, and I used to do multimedia all the time. We’d get together, a bunch of kids, and we’d get piles of magazines. We’d go through them and pull out mostly ads. We’d have three of those old carrousel slide-trays and three projectors. We’d put them on the walls of buildings downtown, and in high school gyms. There would be music that went with these images. We had Janis Joplin singing, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” And on three screens, we had crosses made of different things, and we’d have Mercedes Benz, and we’d have colour TVs and all those kinds of things, and the ads to go with them, and then we’d go from that to “pornography of poverty” type images. So, in the end, she laughs at the end of her song, you see all this poverty. Some of it was pretty corny, some of this Vietnam War type stuff, race stuff and so on. I did one of these multimedia presentations about famine. I really loved it, because it was all images of statues around the world, and you couldn’t tell the ethnicity of the statues, or even often the gender. They were hard to find, but there are a number of them! I had these images and the readings were all from the Cecil Woodham-Smith book on the potato famine. The only thing I changed from the readings was that I didn’t use the word “Irish” anywhere. It was all about the famine, but you couldn’t tell anything else or where in history. Then the last pictures showed Irish people going to the graveyards and so on. The multimedia presentation had a powerful impact when we showed it to audiences, kids and so on, and I loved doing that. It was about a half-hour show. We had fifteen trays, five for each of the three carrousels, and the three projectors. I still have the slides in my basement in Ottawa, all mildewed and totally disastrous, now.
From 1964 to 1974, I found myself trapped into fundraising. There are two fundraising things I did. In 1965, the FAO had this initiative, the “Young World Mobilization Appeal.» It was one of those things that the UN does, «Let’s mobilise the world to do something to give us money,» you know? Back with Kennedy in the mid-sixties, the whole thing was to walk 50 kilometres, 50 miles. I thought we should try to organise walks in Canada. Our kids would walk, but they would walk to raise money and they couldn’t walk that far, they would walk 35 miles, the average was 35 miles. We did it first in Ottawa, the capital, and we got 3,700 kids and the Prime Minister to join the walk. They raised about 50,000 dollars, which in those days was like half a million dollars now, probably. And then I did the second in my own city, Winnipeg, and we got 8,000 kids doing it and we raised about 80,000 dollars. That was a great idea, so then I did it across Canada. We raised four million dollars or something in 27 different cities. From there it spread, and each year I was the organiser of it. Then the FAO wanted me to do it internationally. Because I’d already gone to the FAO and had met all those people, I was invited to be an advisor, so I proposed what we should do. I did fundraising walks in the United States, in Germany, in Italy. Internationally, we did workshops for people to do it and, in the end, we were raising almost 30 million dollars a year for it. And I wrote booklets on how to do it in different places and so on. That was fundraising. Because it had worked so well, I gained a lot of credibility with aid agencies.
I’d say that up until 1970 or the early 1970s, even after returning to Canada, I was really fundraising and very naive about the politics of the world. I had a team of five and we proposed to have one operating in each region of Canada, with what we called «a license to kill.» It was a James Bond approach to aid, sort of. The five of us were given a three-year budget to work together, to do whatever we wanted so as to create awareness in Canada about international issues. In the end, we did this. I was in charge of the prairies. I went to the three prairie provinces and the church leaders in Canada. So I got the heads of the Catholic, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in Canada to come to the province of Alberta, our wealthy oil capital, and I arranged a meeting with the governor. We called for three things to be done. The first had to do with alcohol, which in Canada is a provincial affair. As you have your states, we have our provinces, and the latter are responsible for alcohol, which is only sold through provincial offices. We demanded that the provincial government agree to not allow for Portuguese and South African wines, ban them, or else give the profits to Canada. The premier really liked the idea, so he agreed to do that. The second thing we wanted to do was a cultural initiative. We wanted to use museums, art galleries and so on to convey a full dimension of what was then called the «Third World.» We wanted to use all our cultural facilities to have a holistic discussion about the world, and they also agreed to that. The third one was the real one, and it was that the provincial government should, for every dollar that the people of Alberta raised voluntarily, match another dollar. Then we convinced the federal government to give two more dollars. Thus, one dollar would give you four dollars in the end, and these four dollars would be controlled by civil society within the province. The premier liked that idea as well. We had a campaign and a political strategy, and we had a lot of fun forcing the government to agree to our ideas. Right away, the campaign raised about 20 million dollars out of Alberta, the most conservative province, and then we did it in the next two provinces that I was responsible for, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. We were successful. We got this lovely campaign to put pressure on the Prime Minister, the original Trudeau. We got him to commit 250 million dollars for food aid that they hadn’t planned to commit. When it was over, I thought: I’ve got to get out of this, I’ve got to learn something. In the end, we were raising close to 40 million dollars a year from just those provinces, and then we did the other provinces. It was mechanical stuff in a way, and by 1974 I felt like an idiot.
In 1972, I read The Limits to Growth. I became a passionate advocate for this book and got into all kinds of debates about it with scientists, and I met the guys who wrote it! That book gave me an understanding of the weaknesses and the strengths of the arguments around growth. It had a big impact on me. I had raised millions and millions of dollars in different ways, but I quit that in 1975 after I witnessed the world food crisis. That year saw the first truly global approach to lobbying governments on their policies around food, or on any issue for that matter, by civil society in the North. Because of the food crisis, we had this World Food Congress. I was appointed as one of the coordinators, since I was an organiser who had been to Rome and knew Rome quite well. But then I realised I just didn’t know very much about the issues. I was a good organiser and I was good at putting stuff together, but I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t understand the Green Revolution, or what was happening with the agribusiness companies. And I really felt stupid. Then I took a trip around the world with my first wife. We spent a year and a half backpacking around Asia, Africa and Europe. Yet when I came back, I said to myself: “I cannot do that anymore. The issue is political; I’ve got to deal with this political issue.” A new phase began in which I tried to understand the political side of the stuff I had been working on.
I guess there was also a small phase in between. As I was travelling, I came across the issue of seeds. While in Sri Lanka, Oxfam UK asked me to look into problems on the tea estates there, which were nationalised in 1975. There was lot of starvation on the estates, because the Sri Lankan government didn’t give a damn about tea workers. We had to be smuggled into the tea estates to see what was going on and make reports. One night, when I was being smuggled in, one of the rice farmers who got us into the tea estate, a Singhalese farmer, told us how bad his rice crop was. I asked him why, since I knew nothing about rice, except that it was white, and that I didn’t like it very much, perhaps because my mother had done a terrible job of cooking it. The Singhalese farmer said that the seeds they had weren’t any good and that «these new seeds were no good.» I asked him, «So why don’t you use your other seeds, your old seeds?» He replied, «They are all gone, they are extinct.» I was just fascinated by that. I never even thought such a thing was possible. It made me think.
A few months later, already in 1976, I was in Kenya at the UN Conference on Trade and Development. I went a month ahead of everybody else to coordinate the civil society lobby. While I was there, I worked with the people of the Kenyan Council of Churches. In one meeting, one of them told me that the wheat we grew in Canada came from Kenya. I thought, “No! It can’t be, you are in a tropical country, I’m not. It can’t be the same wheat variety!» But he insisted it was true, and I kind of half-paid attention to it. Half a year later, I was back in Canada, and the first thing I did, literally, was go to the library in Regina, Saskatchewan. I went to look up a «pedigree book,» like the one you have for horses, but that one was for cereal varieties. And I looked through it: the leading wheat variety in Canada is something we call «Nipowa Bread Wheat,» and it’s two-thirds of all of the wheat on the Canadian prairies. «Nipowa Bread Wheat» is a hard-red spring wheat, and is the best bread-making wheat in the world. I looked it up and found that the genes of this wheat came from 30 different countries, including Kenya! So the Kenyan was right. However, the wheat was from Kenya, Bangladesh, Poland, Libya, Tunisia, India, all kinds of places. To me, this was an educational event. I had just come from a World Food Conference where I was trying to get food aid for the «Third World,» but, as I read the whole damn book, I was learning that what was true of wheat was true of everything: barley, oats, peas, everything. Canada wasn’t a breadbasket; rather it was kind of a basket case. We had to get our genes from the rest of the world or we wouldn’t have any food in Canada. I had found a tool to try to explain to Canadians that we were not feeding the world: the world was feeding us.
We don’t see technology as a given of any kind. I am absolutely fascinated by the technologies that have failed and why they failed. History is full of these failures! To me, it is not the technologies at the top and everything else following from that; it is still power that is at the top and capital that is at the top, and one of their tools is technology, so technology is a very powerful and very dangerous tool. Regarding technologies that failed, the questions are: Who stopped them? Was it bad science that was behind it or was it power that prevented them from moving forward? Whose interests were being protected in those technologies?
Initially, I was fascinated by the fact that Canadians depend upon the Global South for the food supply. The first political conference on food was in 1974 and it was all, you know: the North taking care of the South. Henry Kissinger and everybody else was coming to Rome. Luis Echeverría, president of Mexico at that time, came to Rome as well. And they were all campaigning that this was the first time ever that food was seen as a politically dangerous topic, but it was all, again, as charity. It was certainly not seen as if the world was in this business together, that without the South’s genetic resources, the North couldn’t survive.
In 1977, I came across this speech by the Minister of Agriculture in Canada, a man who I fought repeatedly for years and who then became a good friend of mine. The speech warned that Canada was going to establish intellectual property rights over plant varieties, or plant-breeder rights, for two reasons. One reason was to feed the hungry and the second was to make a more beautiful country. I just couldn’t believe it. I started doing my own research on intellectual property rights and the patenting of plant varieties. After a little reading, I learned about genetic erosion: that plant varieties from Africa and Latin America were disappearing because the Green Revolution was wiping them out. That farmer in Sri Lanka was right: he couldn’t get his old seeds back anymore. The thing about seeds is that once you eat them, they are gone: diversity is gone, the genes are gone. All he had left were the new commercial varieties, which weren’t any good. I finally understood that there is a huge loss of the genetic diversity of our food crops. Last but not least, I understood the reality that family seed companies were being bought by huge pharmaceutical and pesticide companies. I asked myself why and saw how all the issues came together: the food crisis, genetic erosion and corporate concentration. The loss of the genetic basis of our food supply was an ecological issue. The corporate takeover of the seed supply, which is the first link in the food chain, was a political issue. Intellectual property rights, or the actual legal ownership over life for the first time ever in history, was an economic issue. It was all fascinating to me.
In 1977, I was also the head of a group, the International College in Food Development Action, which we had set up three years earlier for the World Food Conference. At the time, the South didn’t exist for us. You guys could not afford to come to the meetings and that was too bad, so we did our own thing! What I did was organise a group meeting in my province, Saskatchewan, and I invited researchers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as from Europe and North America. Among the 20 people or so that came together to discuss global food issues was Cary Fowler, a colleague I had met at UNCTAD, in Nairobi, and with whom I had been talking about seeds. Cary had been working on a book with Franky Lappé and Joe Collins. Most other researchers wanted to deal with the trade politics of fish, wheat or milk, while Cary and I wanted to talk about seeds. Our concern seemed esoteric to the others: who cares about seeds? Yet I was the organiser and I was able to push the issue through. We got our way, and they agreed that seeds should be one of the topics we dealt with. After the 1977 meeting, we came up with RAFI (Rural Advancement Fund International), which was the starting point of the ETC Group.
The Rural Advancement Fund was an initiative set up by Eleanor Roosevelt back in the 1930s. It was the fundraising arm for the National Sharecroppers Fund, which sought to help African American sharecroppers in the South. We had gone to them to get fundraising support for our work on seeds, although RAFI had its own board of directors and its own legal identity.
I went to an FAO meeting and we were trying to push through this idea that there should be an intergovernmental body that deals with seeds. Until the early 1970s, the UN had the FAO and that was all. It was the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and it was in charge of technology, all the science stuff was with them, all the food aid was with them, everything was with the FAO. And with the food crisis in 1974, which was already happening, there was an opportunity to break it up. It was falling too much under the control of the south, and so the World Bank and Rockefeller and so on got together and broke it up, basically. And if you go back and read the initial reports from the FAO, and the margin notes of the documents from people who came back from Trade and Development saying, “they’re screwing Africa” – you know, written in the margin in a note from the FAO Director General at the time – what was really going on in the background was the destruction of the capacity of the UN to deal with food and agriculture. It was just divided up. Suddenly, you had the International Fund for Agricultural Development taking care of all the cash that was around, the World Food Program spun off to take care of food aid, CGIAR spun off to take care of food technology. And the FAO was basically left as a normative body with no real functional capacities. In 1993, at the beginning of the “knowledge economy,” the UN gave itself a frontal lobotomy because of the disappearance of the two bodies that it had to work on these issues. One was the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, which we did a lot of stuff with, and it was killed by the US Government in 1993. Unsurprisingly, the US just cut the budget. The other was the UN Centre for Science and Technology for Development, which had been launched in 1979. That was killed in 1993 as well. So there was no capacity in the UN to take on any of the issues we were talking about. There had to be a legal arrangement around the seeds as well, and a world gene bank. From being impossible, overnight it went to being an absolute demand by the South, by Latin America especially, after we were able to give each country the proof that their diversity had gone, crop by crop, to countries of the North: «Here’s where your seeds went to and here’s what you got back, which is nothing.» To me, this is an absolutely wonderful story, but I won’t go into detail now. There was the US ambassador threatening everybody in the room saying, «Call your capitals before you vote and talk to them about your bilateral trade relationships with us!» The first debate was in three days, but then it went on for two years. He said, «Look at the non-disclosed paragraphs in these treaties, ask them about those.» It was just an absolute heavy-handed threat. And it was Mexico – via ambassador José Ramón López Portillo, the president’s son, who became a really good friend – the country that took up the issue. López Portillo was fighting the American ambassador, it was a really spectacular process. Everyone in the FAO who was around at that time know that story as being «the» event of the 1980s for the Rome-based agencies. It was really quite amazing.
We were not welcome, for sure. When we first came to the UN, in the FAO, talking about seeds, I remember the American delegate saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Which is a Mark Twain kind of statement, I think. “Everything’s fine, what are you talking about? Everything’s okay.” And that was the general assumption. And so we were thought to be crazy. The first book we did, or that I wrote, in 1979, was really attacked by agencies, by UN agency people who should’ve been on my side, because actually what I was saying would have given them more support for their work. But it would just seem to be, because it was such a political interpretation of their work, they attacked it. There was one meeting, it was an open meeting in a sense, it was called the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, and it was held in Rome. And it wasn’t open to the public as such, but you could apply to attend, and it wasn’t just for governments at all, it was really meant for scientists, and so we applied to attend. I had an ally inside of the FAO, he showed me the memo that was circulated inside what they called the ‘house,’ inside the building, that said: “We know that Mr. Mooney has applied to attend this meeting, we advise that he not be let into the meeting because he’s very disruptive.” But I had the memo, so I went to go in, they said I couldn’t go in, and I said, “Well, I have this memo here. If you don’t want to have it in the newspapers, you’d better let me inside.” And they went, came back in a minute carrying a note and let us go in. But I’ve kept the memo.
From 1977 till the late 1990s, we worked almost exclusively on seeds, and biotech issues were just a natural extension of the seed work in the 1980s. We were the first to get into biotechnology, for sure. We did that in 1979, and in 1981, we first wrote that pesticide companies were buying seed companies in order to develop herbicide-tolerant plant varieties. Both the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the World Society of Agronomists in Canada attacked us for suggesting it was possible to even have herbicide-tolerant plant varieties; it seemed to them scientifically impossible. The media also criticised us; I still have incredibly hostile letters from that time. Since we got into biotech at the very, very beginning, people thought we were crazy. In 1987, we joined forces with a Swedish foundation to organise the first-ever international meeting on biotechnology. We brought together Anne Coppling from GRAIN and Vandana Shiva, who had never been involved in agricultural issues before. As she always says now, that was her first chance to understand biotechnology. The meeting was held in France.
Until 1984, when we legally created RAFI, we were in separate organisations; each of us got their money from different sources, from different foundations in the United States and from the UN. The money I had in Canada came from a couple of Canadian NGOs and from European groups that I knew. But we did everything together, especially writing and research. Once in RAFI, we got one or two more people. Cary knew Hope Shand, who had worked on a pre-computer listing of all the resources in the world that had been moved from one place to another in gene banks, and suggested that she join us. Hope was brilliant. I managed to get a small grant from a lady whom I had never met and who thought it was kind of interesting work. With her money, I was able to hire high school students to type stuff really fast. Bev Cross’s job was to take the entire book and type it into the computer, and it was fantastic! We got our first computer in 1982, the first IBM desktop computer. Three columns of numbers and she did it perfectly, just perfectly! She put the data into a spreadsheet and we could show that the US was ripping off everybody else, that the flow of seeds was from the South to the North, overwhelmingly! The four of us got the thing going. After a break with the US organisation in 1989, Cary went to Norway, where he was offered a position at an institute. But Hope, Bev and I stayed together and hired other people gradually after that. Around the same time, we had virtually no money. All the money we got was reimbursements for plane tickets and for making speeches and so on. We joked about how we learned…to live on an airplane. You took flights, to save on hotels you slept in airports or you stayed at people’s houses, you even saved airplane meals. The vegetarian meal would last longer, you know. It was a really tough life, but that was just a phase.
We got a big boost at the end of the 1980s because things we’d been saying were coming true and governments were taking us much more seriously. We got involved in international, off-the-record negotiations. One of them, called the Keystone Dialogue, went on for three years and had us at the table with corporations, governments and scientists. That gave us a lot of credibility with everybody. People who worked in agriculture knew we had meetings in Moscow, in India, here and there. So by the early 1990s, we were getting a bit more money, but not plenty of it. By the end of the 1980s, the Rural Advancement Fund went through a crisis related to the corrupt behaviour of a new executive director, the first black executive director of the organisation. A mostly white Board of Directors was too racist to recognise the problem and too cowardly to challenge a black director. The organisation collapsed and we distanced ourselves from it. In the late 1990s, we felt that the public funds that we were getting weren’t going to us, but to them. At that time there weren’t any thieves among them, but they were basically trying to get tobacco farmers out of growing tobacco and into other crops, which wasn’t exactly our line of work. So we said, we’ve got to create our own legal identity so that we can actually get our own funds independently, and thus the ETC Group was born in 2001.
(My brother, who is two years older than me, became a diplomat. Unlike me, he was a good student and went through university, then joined the Foreign Service in Canada and spent his entire career in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We think we are very different – “not the same at all!» – but we had the same international interest, in a sense. I would say he is much more conservative and his diplomatic career makes me ill. You know, I used to visit him and they always had these gated communities that diplomats lived in. He was in charge during the Ethiopian Famine (1985, 1995-1996), when I was invited to Ethiopia by the Dashen Gene Bank of Ethiopia, to help them politically argue for the conservation of seeds during the famine. My brother was the chair of the Bilateral Aid Committee of all of the aid agencies, the government aid agencies, in Ethiopia. I was visiting and he was trying to get rid of teff as a crop, which is the major food crop in Ethiopia. Teff is a cereal crop, gold and yellow in colour. It is not high-yielding, but it has high protein and it has a high mineral content, so it’s very nutritious, in fact. But it is grown as food only in Ethiopia. A different species of it is grown for fodder in South Africa. Because my brother thought it was very low-yielding, he saw a chance to get rid of it: “People have some sort of traditional love for that crop but it’s not useful, let’s get rid of it. We’ll buy their seed from them and give them a maize seed instead, high-yielding maize.” So while my brother was trying to get rid of teff, I was trying to preserve it! We were on exactly opposite sides! Luckily my side won, because if they had destroyed teff, there would’ve been a terrible famine, much worse than it was. So we are very different in that sense, he had an entirely different view of these things than I did. But we are friends, we get along.)
By 1996, we were becoming notoriously effective in UN meetings, which gave us much more credibility. The GM explosion took place in 1996 and we were interested in three topics then. One was the idea of the next phase of biotech, which we thought was going to be an internal modification of plants and livestock. Moving genes between species was such a clumsy process that there had to be an internal process, so we were trying to understand what we called «intergenetics,» and that’s what’s happening now. The second thing was «biopiracy,» a term that we invented because we were looking at the theft of medicinal plants and things like that in order to show how widespread it was and to use it as an argument against the WTO. The WTO was arguing that the South owed money to the North because it didn’t give intellectual property protections for plant varieties. We were doing the opposite: we were trying to show that, in fact, the value to the North of medicinal plants and crops from the South was vastly greater than the royalties that the North was demanding from the South. So the biopiracy issue is a political question revolving around trade issues. The third topic was the Terminator technology of «suicide seeds,» which is a big issue for us. When Terminator came along in 1998 and we quickly got a UN moratorium, money became a bit easier.
At the same time, in 1996, when GM crops reached the field for the first time, everybody became involved. Suddenly Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and everybody were campaigning against GM crops. So we had no role to play; frankly we had no value-added contribution. So we asked ourselves, once again, about what else was going on, and looked around more carefully. In 1999, Hope, Sean and I asked ourselves what else, besides seeds and biotechnology, was going on. We felt that we had learned a lot about technology by working at the UN level. In 2000, my book The ETCetera Century came out, and it looked into a wider range of topics that I thought we should be addressing. I envisioned a world in which you wouldn’t have transgenics, and instead you’d have intergenetics. Because there is enough diversity in any species to do almost anything, there wouldn’t be a need to move genes between species; you’d always be able to make changes within the species. Today this is called «gene editing»; it’s the whole synthetic biology stuff that’s now out there. It took a lot longer than we thought, but it has happened. We started looking into nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, critically, quickly led us to synthetic biology, because it was biology at the nano scale that emerged as the key thing. Thus, we came back to what was, for us, familiar territory, back to plants and agriculture. You know, quantum computing is really a biological process: you take cells to make cells to be your memory chips. We say it had to work that way for scale reasons. Living things multiply very easily, while machinery doesn’t. There was also the health issue, but our precept was, again, more related to the agricultural side. And there were lots of groups that are moving into nanotech, which was good, and so, again, we felt like we didn’t need to stay there. From that, we went to synthetic biology and we left nanotechnology to other groups. They haven’t done very well, though; we still come to their meetings occasionally.
One of the drivers was to take on things that no one else was taking on, and that was probably for selfish reasons in some ways. It was, hey, this is something no one else talks about, we can really surprise everybody with this! Or, this is simply fascinating. Then, I guess, one of the things for us was this fascination with what’s new. Nanotechnology was like that. No one knew anything about nanotechnology when we started to talk about it. Geoengineering was the same. It was about searching for those things which, to us, seem really important and really powerful, and were just not part of anyone’s thinking. When nanotechnology came along, we just had no home for it: it wasn’t naturally an agricultural issue that we would take to the FAO; it wasn’t naturally anything else that we felt comfortable with. I acknowledge that a fascination with unexplored territory is not defensible per se. Yet I can guarantee there’s nothing you will find in the literature on those topics – nanotechnology, geoengineering – that comes before the stuff that we wrote, in terms of those topics being political issues. You’ll find some scientific stuff about nanotechnology, but you won’t find anyone putting it together as a political issue. We failed in a way because we didn’t know quite how to deal with it and it was very comfortable for us to say, well, «nano-bio» is the part we know, it is part of the same thing. Yet all the things you see now, even industrial processes for airplane parts, they all already have nanotechnology in them. At the same time, we might have left too soon, since I don’t think the other groups dealing with the issues have ever developed a clear political strategy.
We tend to simplify if we are asked a question by journalists, saying that the issue really is ownership or control of technology. But if we are allowed more than a 30-second answer, we also say that there are technologies we think are simply bad, and there are other technologies which can be done right. That has evolved for us, for sure, and there is internal tension over that. For example, when Jim Thomas first joined us in 2001 or 2002, he was a bit horrified. He came from Greenpeace and he was a bit horrified that we made these blank statements about how any new major technology will exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. Now he totally agrees, but it took all of us a long time to discuss it, to sort it out. Regarding biotechnology, Hope Shand and I always took the position that we are not against biotechnology or GMOs and, in fact, we don’t have a policy position against GMOs. We are against GMOs as they exist now, but if tomorrow somebody comes up with a GMO rice that’s got new nutritional qualities, that has a resiliency to respond to climate change that others don’t have, that can be used by farmers directly without controls attached to them regarding other crosses that farmers can make, so as to be the basis or platform for other crosses or more diversity and so on, we would be into it: it’d be very hard to say that that was a bad idea. I wouldn’t say it was a bad idea. Others in the group would be horrified at this, since they are just against GMOs flat-out, but we can live with the tension among ourselves over that because the final conclusion is that we are fighting GMOs in places like Mexico where GM maize threatens to destroy the centre of diversity for maize. But I’m not against GMOs per se. I wouldn’t be against nanotechnology or synthetic biology in a world where I could feel they could be managed safely and where there are proper controls. If they had developed a nuclear system of power that is safe, really safe, in a world where it can’t be turned into weapons, then I wouldn’t be against it. Geoengineering is the same. If we were in 2050 and the world was burning out, and the destruction was inevitable because Western Antarctica’s ice sheet fell off, with a two-metre rise of water in the oceans in a very short period of time, and if we had governments that we could trust, then I would say, «Yes, let’s do geoengineering, what do we have to lose?» This isn’t even theoretical, because at the end of the day, we are not going to get those governments. So, at the moment, I am against those technologies, without doubt.
One of our strengths has always been that we can see a strategy for things, so we know how to move it at a governmental level or at an intergovernmental level. In nanotech, our work was so novel that we got enormous media coverage for it. In fact, I don’t remember if we got more media coverage for anything as we got for nanotech. But there was no home for it.
At the beginning, we were really disliked and not trusted for information. Now it’s the opposite, really. It’s not in the whole UN, but in the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has its own intergovernmental body, in the FAO in general, in the Committee on World Food Security – which is beyond the FAO – and in other agencies as well, in these forums where we deal with some of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s conventions, we’re very well known. Any one of us, if they see the name, etc., we’re recognised as having expertise and we’re invited to all the meetings. We are given a kind of privileged position, in a way: not in all of them, but mostly the procedure is that you speak last in any process, like, you have an agenda of around 10 items, and they let civil society speak after all the governments have exhausted themselves on that agenda item. They say, “Okay, we’ve got a little time left, let’s hear from the NGOs at the back of the room.” We are often allowed to speak anywhere we want to on the agenda. And the chair is so used to us that he says, “Oh, okay, you’re next.” And our documents are well read by governments, and when there’s off-the-record negotiations, like negotiations around a treaty or moratorium or something like that, they’re usually closed door, off-the-record meetings, they’re not official meetings at all…but we’re always invited to those meetings, even by our enemies. Our enemies accept us being there because they know we have status with governments. So, we’re listened to. It comes down to language, finally. You’re doing a lot of negotiation around language, but before you get to that language, you’ve got to have agreements in principle, kind of.
A few weeks ago I was in Geneva, and the Swiss government had organised an off-the-record meeting (it was convened under the rules of Chatham House), where we had Monsanto, Dupont and Bayer. The US government and several governments were there, South and North, and I was the civil society person there. And we were talking about how much companies will pay to get access to genetic resources that were held in public gene banks, and under what conditions they will pay for it, and will governments accept the amount of money that these companies were offering. That was a very frank discussion over two and a half days, where we’re sitting around the table, around 25 people or so, and everyone’s just talking straight out. I have as much voice as the US government does on those things. We’re all there as individuals. It’s a great process because you’re not talking in the official language, you’re really talking about the nuts and bolts of the process, and people are being quite blunt with each other. The reality is that one of the advantages for civil society is that we’re around longer. I looked around the room at that last meeting and I had at least 10 years more experience than anyone else in the room. Twenty years more than a lot of them. I could tell more stories, if someone referred to something I knew more than they did about it, and I could make those connections.
And we’re the ones that are allowed to be rude in those things, as well. I can make jokes, be sarcastic…embarrass people a bit sometimes, and it’s kind of accepted because we’re civil society. Even in the formal meetings, by the way, we do that. Our stuff we write, for negotiations, when there’s an actual formal intergovernmental discussion, we still write stuff in a way that governments want to read it and governments now believe we’re accurate. They may not like our political interpretation of the issue, but the facts we provide, they believe they’re true. We were used to being told all the time, “That’s a lie, it can’t be true, you’ve got to be wrong.” No one says that to us anymore. We haven’t been challenged on our data for decades. I’m sure it’s not since the early ‘80s that someone has said, “We don’t trust what you’re saying” or “We don’t believe that’s true.” Of course, they have their alternative facts, like Trump does. But no one says, “Your figures on the corporate concentration,” or “your figures on the germ-plasm” or “your figures on what’s happening with this technology are wrong.” They won’t challenge us on that, we haven’t been challenged by anybody on those fronts. And we’re quite careful with those figures, we don’t mess around, we’re very careful.
In 2007, we got side-tracked. We started to look into what became «geoengineering.» We had read something about ocean fertilisation and the idea that you could “sequester” carbon dioxide by putting iron pellets on the surface of the ocean, which would attract phytoplankton , which would gobble up the iron and then, when they died, they would take the carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean. It was a way of getting rid of carbon dioxide. We found about three failed government-led experiments on this. The first concluded that failure was due to not using a big enough scale: the experiment needed to take up more of the ocean to try it out on, escalating from 50 square kilometres to 10,000 square kilometres. The experiment was repeated, but again failed. Over Christmas 2006, I asked my second oldest daughter to help me do some research on it, and she came up with 12 examples where governments had tried ocean fertilisation, including Japan, Norway, the United States, the UK and Germany, among others. Lots of them, where international expeditions of governments trying these things all failed, and they were getting bigger all the time. So we started questioning what that meant. It was easy for us to organise because no one knew anything about it, even though there was a growing consensus among oceanographers and green biologists that it was dangerous. It wasn’t helping the climate, it wasn’t doing its job and it was dangerous to the marine environment. So we took it to the Biodiversity Convention and went to a meeting in Bonn in 2008 in which we identified the issue as a threat to marine biology and lobbied for a moratorium. Governments were so shocked that all the industrialised countries were messing with the oceans, mostly off the Humboldt current in Latin America, off the coast of Chile. They were off the coast of South Africa in some cases. People got really upset quickly and we got the moratorium very fast. Ocean fertilization took us off synthetic biology a little bit. By 2008, however, we realised that ocean fertilization was easy. A tougher issue was solar radiation management, which was going to be a big threat, so we needed to focus on that. We split into two major areas of work at that stage, one of them being specifically solar radiation management and the other our more familiar work on synthetic biology. At that point, some studies came out showing that what the US government was doing a convergence of sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology and genomics were all coming together into one nano-info-cogno-bio “singularity.” We turned that around into what we still call «BANG»: Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes, as we clearly saw these coming together. We are indeed seeing cells being used for chips and biological materials being used to block sunlight, all that kind of stuff. That’s when The BANG Theory book came out, a half-fiction, half-nonfiction book. (The BANG Book is a book I’ve never finished until now, although it is now forthcoming in Spanish, thanks to the initiative of 17, Institute of Critical Studies. In an earlier version, it’s available in German and it was privately “published” in English, for a meeting, by a Swedish foundation. It was in German and English because the Right Livelihood Society wanted to have a big conference in Bonn and they got a German publisher who translated and commercially published it in Germany in 2010. And the English version was published at the same time, but just for the conference, so there’s like a couple hundred copies of the initial manuscript, or four or five hundred copies, I’m not quite sure.)
A foundation came to us and gave us a million dollars, and we took a gamble on a transition, a «face-change.» We brought back the idea of technology assessment, two decades after those two UN organisations had been decapitated. We put our resources into documentation. We had to be in New York every couple of weeks and New York is an expensive place to be. We organised all kinds of things to make it happen. We realised in 2011 that it was really dumb of us to chase after one technology and another, that we should really have a system for approaching technologies, a framework for technology assessments by civil society. The UN had to have a home for technology debates and we had to create that home. And that was creating a technology facilitation mechanism. It is now called the Science, Technology and Innovation Forum at the UN, and it meets every year and all the governments, all the industries, all the UN agencies and ourselves, civil society, come together for a fight over technologies. There was a debate, a very brief debate, in the sense of, where does the Etcetera Group fit in if we have these regional bodies, which would have regional staff doing this kind of work? Where do we fit in that? And our conclusion was that we are the dissidents… we are back where we started: we are the «devil’s advocates.» In other words, because that would be a gathering of social movements and I think social movements are inherently conservative over time, we think our role should still be to be the outsider. We should be the one small, agile group that is able to be critical of what they do, or even suggest things to them as well. But we shouldn’t be in charge, we shouldn’t be controlled by them and they shouldn’t be controlled by us.
As a bit more money became available, we thought we had a chance to expand, and our decision was to hire people who had travelled hard, who were really smart, researched hard, who could write well and fit in. And by accident, that person was Silvia Ribero, I mean, the first person who fit that criteria for us was Silvia. And it wasn’t because she was Latin American at all! We had no plan of having a Latin American office. She was in Uruguay when we first offered the job to her, we just knew we wanted her, she just fit our criteria. And, of course, she wanted to move to Mexico, which was fine with us. The same thing happened with our Asian office: we wanted to hire Neth Daño, who knew us well and we knew we could work well with her. And, by accident, we also have an Asian office. By that time, we kind of realised Silvia had shown us that having a Latin American office was really a great thing to do and she pushed into Spanish and into all those huge networks, but it hadn’t been intended. With Neth, we knew we’d get Asia as well, but it was really Neth we wanted. We’ve always said that our model when hiring has always been, “You go for the person, you don’t go for anything else, you just go for the person.” And we’ve always said to people: you can live anywhere you want to, as long as you’ve got a good Internet connection and a good airport nearby. And the joke in the ETC Group is that we’ve been ruled by love: we’ve got offices wherever someone’s fallen in love, and some people have fallen in love often! When we hired Jim, he was in Brussels, which was terrific. But he fell in love with someone in Oxford, so suddenly we have an office in Oxford. Then he fell in love with someone in Ottawa, so suddenly we got… well, we had an office in Ottawa already and that was really good. And then he fell in love with someone in Montreal! Now we also want to have an African Office and we want to have someone permanently in Europe and so on as well. We’ve started to think more structurally than we used to. Before it was in survival mode: just get this job done the best you can and hope you get money for it. But it was always because we got grants for virtually everything. It wasn’t much money, but it didn’t tie us down at all; it let us be as free-ranging as we wanted to be. So now we do see a need for more of a structural approach in terms of having offices in other locations to work with a wider range of partners. I think it’d be a mistake for a group like us to be big and powerful. If we had all the resources that we wanted and we had a staff of a hundred, we would be dangerous. We would do stupid things, run over our friends and stuff like that. I mean, we need to have two or three more staff people.
One of the continuing factors of all of our stuff is that we’ve never taken on an issue that anyone else ever thought was important! Every single time, people thought, «That’s a stupid idea!» I mean, absolutely every time! «Boy, you’ve really gone off the deep end this time, that’s just nuts!» We couldn’t get anyone to back us, so we had to create our own organisation. The role of the UN has evolved over time, but for us, it was almost a cheap media opportunity. You could go there and you could get a lot of governments to pay attention to you and move an issue rather rapidly. I mean, the first stuff we did on seeds got much more publicity in Africa and Asia than it got in Europe and North America because we were at the UN talking about it, and journalists would pick it up, and suddenly they’d read it up in local newspapers. That gave us lots of ammunition. Our sense of needing to work with allies and have partnerships has also evolved over time. Initially we just went and talked to anyone about anything, being desperate to have anyone pay attention to anything we said. As time has gone on, we have become more strategic. We know we need to align ourselves with certain groups of partners, and make sure that we are working with them rather than fighting them.
Our strategy now as the ETC Group is to create what we call TAPs, or Technology Assessment Platforms, in each region, which are broader than us. The purpose of this was to go to regional partners in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. We would say to them: you need to have a technology assessment platform in the region. When civil society, in the widest sense possible, comes together and looks at these issues, and decides what’s important and what isn’t, does their own civil assessment of the technology and decides what they want to push for or oppose, and takes that to national governments, regional organisations and to the UN in New York. So, the headquarters for Latin America is in Uruguay, with Redes as the host. Now we are setting one up in Asia, which would be initially in the field of beans and which we hope will move to Bangkok within the next year or year and a half. And just in the last few days, we’ve been offered funding to do the same thing in Africa by a foundation in California. So we’ll try it. We have to negotiate with them over that, but we hope to have a platform established within the next 18 months or so, as well. We should be friends and allies to the Technology Assessment Platforms, while they should be a movement of movements on technology issues. We ultimately would be very relieved if we had these platforms for technology assessment at the regional level. There will be inevitable interregional collaboration among the platforms because the technologies are global. But each region should decide its own priorities and have its own independent funding. We would be the outsider inside or the insider outside.
Even while working with Via Campesina from 1996 on, we generally saw ourselves as outsiders raising issues that people didn’t really want to deal with and talking with groups that didn’t really care. For example, it was really hard to convince the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements that seeds were an important topic! They didn’t get that they couldn’t be organic farmers if they didn’t have access to a diversity of seeds, and so they were dismissive. Their dismissal was based on the idea that “we are the experts, we are organic farmers and we are making money; we are very profitable as well. So you can’t tell us anything that we don’t know, this can’t be important if we don’t know it!» We encountered this all the time, which was just amazing to us! So I think our sophistication developed around working with partners, seeing our role and our limitations, as well as how badly we need to have those partners, to live with partners that aren’t perfect, that aren’t always our ideal partners or that are in conflict with each other. For instance, the agricultural trade unions are not very happy with Via Campesina and vice versa. We worry a lot about that.
Of course, we all rewrite history in our own image. In hindsight, my formula has been that we just keep on looking at what’s going on and we look as widely as possible. We read the financial press until it drives us crazy and the science press and all kind of things. We try to understand what it means and it is fairly intuitive, I think: some things we discard, other things we don’t and some things we see that, «Gee, that’s really important, but everybody else is doing it, so why should we?» If we pick an issue, our instinct is to write it up in such a way that we can understand it better, and then ask ourselves how we can make it intelligible to our friends. Can we describe it in a way that gets to, for example, Vía Campesina or the Union of Concerned Scientists? Then there is a bit of a public relations: can we make this attractive enough for our friends to be interested in it? And the third thing would be, can we do something about it, can we actually propose what should be done and where can we propose that? This last bit is where we kind of fell down on nanotech, because all we could say was that we wanted a moratorium on nanotechnology until there were safe regulations in place. We didn’t want to end the technology, we simply wanted society to stop and understand what was going on, and make sure it was a safe technology at all levels. But we had no forum to fight for that, so we tried with other issues in the way we always had: defining the strategy and finding the forum for it. It’s all three things together.
It’ll half work, it’ll half won’t work, and all of the genetic diversity we had will disappear because no one’s going to bother saving it. And like the farmer in Sri Lanka that I met in 1975, who couldn’t get his old seeds back, that’s going to be true for the entire world and there’ll only be the digitised versions of the DNA controlled by companies. The three companies will have that with these new technologies and that can’t be allowed to happen, that’s way too dangerous, and even if it worked for the North, it won’t work for peasants around the world. They’ll still need to be able to do their own plant breeding on their own plots of land. No one else is going to breed for them. So it’s essential that the dematerialisation of DNA be challenged, and for them to not be allowed to have intellectual property control over it, and that we maintain diversity in the field. It’s an immediate battle over that. And thirdly, there’s the big data aspect of that, because the dematerialisation of DNA is digital DNA that’s exactly the same stuff. We’ve been talking a lot about satellite information, and market data, and weather data, and soil information and so on… it’s all the same manipulation of information, and companies can look at it just as ones and zeroes, that’s all it is. So, that’s the food system we’re moving towards. Is it immediately relevant to them, is it in terms of some specific commodities? Because vanilla can be grown in algae, in a vat, by a company in Switzerland. And they don’t need to have vanilla in Madagascar anymore.
The battle we had over seeds initially was because no one believed that it was an issue. Now, quite often though, there is this awareness that technologies are issues, so when we go to Vía Campesina or talk with organisations, they do get it. Even though they’d never heard of synthetic biology until last year, or last month or something, they understand because they’ve been through the GMO experience, it’s not hard for them to grasp that, “Okay, this is the next generation of that.” This is the next dimension of that kind of work. And so their willingness to take it on and say, “Okay, we’ve got to fight this battle,” is much, much improved over back in the 1970’s. It took us from the ‘70s to the ‘90s to get them to be concerned about seeds, and now it took us like two years to get people concerned about synthetic biology in social movements. I mean, they need to be more concerned, but the leadership gets it and they understand that they have to look out. The sense of technologies being an important topic, whether we’re talking about energy systems or food systems or health systems, people get, now, that technology is an important factor in these dangers. Of course, they conclude that it’s a decisive factor, as opposed to tools being used. Certainly, we’re now working on bitcoins and the whole blockchain strategy around finance and «fin-tech,» as they call it, financial technologies. There are others working on it, for sure, but they are not looking at it so much from the production side. And we see threats: we see good friends taking on the issue as a solution for farmers to have access to credit, and we think that’s not true. So we’re trying to understand it that way and say: don’t be swept away by this idea that this is an open source technology that’s going to let you have a breakthrough and that’s going to suit JP Morgan and all other banks, it’s not going to happen. That way at least. So, we are diverted, we are certainly diverted into that. And we get diverted because of the urgency of the moment, in some ways, and we’d scramble after that to try to put together our formula, as you say.
One of our concerns, always, is not to deflect people from their existing battles. Lots of groups are fighting over GM contamination of maize in Mexico, and they should. And we don’t want to take them away from that battle. In Africa, there is a big battle because of land-grabbing, and if you talk to peasants, that’s the number one topic: how to make sure they’ve got land to grow anything on in the future. We don’t want to distract them from that topic. In Asia, a lot of it is about intellectual property rights over plant varieties, and now livestock. Anyway, the point of both the GM maize battle in Mexico and even the intellectual property rights in Asia is that those were issues which we raised originally, that people told us were irrelevant, because they had no existing reality for them. They were intellectual discussions that weren’t on the ground and now they’re major topics for battle. We approach these issues saying, “Don’t lose your focus, you have to decide for yourself what’s most important for you.” At the same time, I think I risk being accused of being very conservative or even reactionary and I think I’m not. But when I hear at protests in Cancun or Seattle that “the people united will never be defeated,” my instinctual thought is “oh yes, they will.” The people in their diversity will never be defeated. It’s a matter of creating not yesterday’s kind of social solidarity in a spiritual sense, but rather of approaching these issues from a diversity of angles. Our strength is in our diversity, so that we can bring all these perspectives to a situation and attack the issue from all kinds of fronts and angles. So I think civil society, in the future, has to be that: there has to be an awareness of what everybody is doing, there has to be communication. But it can’t be a common “master plan,” it can’t be a brilliant strategy coordinated by someone in a bunker somewhere below a volcano trying to map out how civil society marches around to change things. How do you create that informal environment of good will and trust, but still with an ability to really move when you have to be together? That is when everyone nods and says, “Ok! We’ve got to do this now!” and they come together and do it. And I think we are moving towards that ability, towards putting all these pieces together and making things happen. But it can’t be one united front in that way. The second thing that makes me sound like a conservative is that there is almost a romanticism about social movements. I’ve had arguments with the NGOs around Vía Campesina who say, “Our job with the social movements is that we are their servants; we are there to support them, to back them up. Whatever expertise we have is at their service.” I’ve argued, though not as much as I’ve wanted to, that no: our job is to be critical of social movements. Yes, we want to support them. Yes, we love them. We know how important those movements are. Social movements have to shake themselves up all the time, they need to have outside critics who constantly remind them of what their real goal is.
I don’t think that the ETC Group can afford to risk our relationship with Vía Campesina. It may cause a schism between organisations in order to fulfil our separate tasks. But with a group like Vía Campesina, at this moment in their history at least, we can be critics from the inside. We have very close ties to them and we are with them all the time and we can be critical. One example is related to the important issue of the huge mergers that have taken place in every business now. We must stop those mergers; at the very least, we must identify them. The next round of mergers is a real threat, so we have to watch that especially. And Vía Campesina was saying, “No, we don’t, you are missing the point. Who cares if six companies have become three companies; it doesn’t make a difference.” And we were saying, “Ah, ah, you are wrong. The three companies that you think are going to be left over aren’t three companies. Those three companies are going to be much, much bigger companies that involve all sectors of the economy that you haven’t even found out about yet. So you need to be aware that this is a much bigger thing than you realise it is.” They kept on not paying attention, they kept on saying, “No, no, no, it’s not so important. We cannot get interested in that. It is a minor thing.” But finally I think they understand it, though it has taken us two years inside of their organisations telling them to take it seriously and why. I was furious at times thinking, “You guys don’t get it!” “If they miss out it’s too bad, but we can’t. It’s too important for us to ignore.” We risked a schism there. Social movements do get trapped sometimes. I think part of our role is to be the “devil’s advocate” or the “loving critic” of these things. Because if the ETC Group disappears, so what? Something else will come up. But if a social movement disappears, if Vía Campesina disappears, that’s a tragedy for the world, because it’s doing really important things and it needs to be vital and strengthened. If it becomes conservative, however, I don’t care about it anymore. So the ETC Group, like Grain, for example, can take risks. If we take a risk and our gamble doesn’t pay off and we get killed because of it, we disappear, it’s not a big loss to the world. Whereas Vía Campesina is too important not to be challenged. It has to be challenged.
But synthetic biology – to go back to what you were saying – is a case where we can’t entirely be sure, but we think there are threats that will make your life miserable if you don’t address them soon. And the sooner you know about them the better, so you can make judgments about where you put your time and energy. It’s going to affect peasants in Mexico, on the basis of the loss of flavour and fragrance crops that are now being sold to Europe and North America, these are high-value crops for small amounts of land. And they’re usually organic crops, they could disappear quite quickly. They are disappearing slowly, but it’ll be faster and faster and faster, up to 150 crops may disappear. The same synthetic biology technologies are the ones which are moving from GMOs to genetics again, where you’re using gene editing to transform the DNA of the species. And they talk about it, now really, in UN negotiations, the term being used now is the “dematerialisation” of seeds. It’s simply on a cloud somewhere, and you download the DNA you want off a cloud and then onto your laptop, then you use this little gene synthesising machine to create that DNA. And you manipulate it any way you want, so gene banks are irrelevant to companies, so financial support for gene banks could disappear and companies could have a completely exclusive intellectual property monopoly over the digital DNA. And that’s an immediate threat, frankly, for world food security, because, as with any new technology and even old technologies, they’re half-right.
There’s a revelation that I wish I had had 40 years ago, or before. It is related to the need for more alliances with academia, which has really stood out for me in the last month especially, or in the last two or three years even. I tended to have a distasteful view of the rural sociologists and anthropologists and political scientists that I had to deal with. As for the so-called “hard scientists” in biology and physics and chemistry, they always seem to get it wrong. They always seemed to be late or trying to publish more than trying to help. I saw them as predatory, though unfairly. There were some that clearly were predatory, but I think we missed out on a lot because of that. We need to have better negotiations, probably clearer negotiations between academia and the so-called advocacy organisations or social movements so we can all feel more comfortable. I think we missed opportunities. Now when I go to economists or rural sociologists in the United States or the UK or Germany, I wish I’d talked to them 20 years ago. I would have known more than I do now, or I would have done better work than I did. Maybe they would have done different stuff as well that would have been more helpful to us. So it is a failure that we didn’t do that out of distrust and two isolations that just could not seem to communicate very well. I hope we can find some way to make that work better. Academics have shown up at UN negotiations over the last few years and they have been spectacularly good. Even though they cannot vote, you can really see people shouting at each other and creating alliances you would never expect to see. Even though they have no particular role to play and so feel kind of awkward, they have made links with social movements that were initially kind of afraid of them. And they have been helpful in providing interpretations or information, or in following up with reports and studies and so on. I think they now feel the need to formalise this in some way, so that we all know what we are doing when we do these things.
There was a play when I was a kid in Canada, living in Saskatchewan on the prairies. There are a lot of progressive movements on the Canadian prairies: farmers’ organisations, co-op movements and so on. It’s the radical centre of Canada. There was a play that the cooperative movement on the prairies put together, called Every Generation and a Half. It went around to all the small towns in the wintertime. The message of the play – which was a nicely done play, actually – was that the co-op movement in Canada needed a revolution every generation and a half. And now I would argue that social movements need a revolution every 20 years. At least every 20 years, to keep them vital and alive and challenging themselves and so on.
I started a book in the late 1990s about the succession of technological waves, and I went back as far as the printing press. I probably got about halfway through. I think if I went back to it now, I might be more critical of the theory that I had then. In our view, there’s been nine agricultural revolutions throughout history, of which the Green Revolution is just one. Two eras that I find absolutely fascinating are the battle over the control of agricultural technologies in the Green Revolution, and if you go back to the beginning of international institutions, beyond the International Telegraph Union, the first international organisation was the International Institute for Agriculture, which became the FAO, established in 1905. What’s interesting about that to me is that it was established by a Polish immigrant in California, a Jewish-Polish immigrant who got land in California, tried to be a farmer, found out that he couldn’t fight against the railways and the grain traders’ cartels, gave the farm back to his family and headed back to Europe on his own and created the institute. He managed to reach the estate of the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, and convinced the king that he should host the first meeting. He put it all together over about three years of work, finally got the government to attend, and when he held the meeting, having organised it in Rome, he wasn’t allowed to attend because he wasn’t in government. So he had to stand outside the courtroom door. But if he had made been secretary, they would have had to have met. He died in 1919 of the Spanish flu, but the organisation carried on through World War II and became the FAO. The fascinating thing to me is that the guy’s correspondence, which is voluminous, has never been digitised. There are just the handwritten letters and so on that he wrote. He just wrote to everybody, and his writings are just amazing! He hated Cargill, and he hated what the railways and the freight lines were doing. He was a revolutionary, a farmer trying to create rights for farmers. And he got sidetracked, but he was doing his best to do this. It was just him doing this and no one else, and everyone fought against him, and he finally got it. The building that the FAO has its meetings in is above the library in his name, and no one knows it. No one has a clue. Everything the FAO does is built upon what he accomplished in those first years. I have a friend, a very rich Jewish woman in New York, who’s wild about seeds, and she said, “You’ve got to let us pay for the digitisation of all of his correspondence,” because it’d be fantastic. Some day she will.
I am going to retire. I’m not going to stop doing things, but there’s going to be a transformation for me. And I’m thinking more about it, and people keep saying to me, “What do you think about your history?” And those questions keep coming up because, when you say you’re going to retire, people have to say something! They have got to say, “Oh, you’ve got to write a book!” That’s the automatic thing! I was the friend of a Dutch scientist who, decades ago, told me, «Well, you’ve been writing fiction all of your life anyways!» He was joking, but he wasn’t joking originally: when he first met me, he thought I was writing fiction and he believed me only after a while.
My instinct is always to write about new things. I mean to go to what’s coming, rather than what’s been or what is. There are four things I’ve said I would like to finish when I retire, four stories that come together from different civil society perspectives about a future time, in twenty years, dealing with new technologies and geopolitical pressures and so on, which we can predict or think they’re coming.
One starts off with a Chinese journalist and her African partner, a lesbian couple that gets involved in different political issues around environmental and human rights. The story is quite shocking; it deals with synthetic biology and geoengineering issues, and when it is over, the nonfiction part comes in and explains everything with more information, but it also explains that everything that people thought was fantastical and far in the future has actually happened already. Or maybe the specific events haven’t happened, but the technology is already fully available. It’s not new, it’s not science fiction.
I started to write the Little Bang book in 2005. The last time I worked on it was in 2010 and a lot has changed. I wouldn’t change the fiction stories, really, but the nonfiction part that explains the fiction needs to be updated because so much has happened. That year, the stories appeared as science fiction, but they were all based upon the reality of what had already happened, people just didn’t know it.
The second is a story about a World Social Forum meeting and it starts off in Geneva. It’s about a group of world health watchers or something, an NGO monitoring a world health organisation and looking at the health aspects of new technologies. There’s some misinformation and the NGO gets tangled up in the politics of Geneva and the UN, so this story links back to the first story a bit as well, and at the end, we get into it again: this is really true, this has all happened already. So, we explain everything that’s there.
The third story has something to do with the World Social Forum in Africa, human rights and peace issues. This is about an African protest, a mobilization of trade unions and researchers dealing with the military aspects of new technologies. And then, again, we go back to “here’s the reality, know that this is happening already, know that this is not fiction.” Finally, the fourth story brings all of these people together, because they all know each other and they all reference each other briefly in each of the stories, making kind of cameo appearances. They meet for the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm – which takes place every December – because one of them is getting the award, and after the celebration, they all get together and talk. And that’s the end of it, but it shows how all these movements are actually coordinating with each other from different angles: health issues, climate change issues and sort of human rights/military issues. All three of them fit in together with the final coordination, showing how civil society comes together.
And the last nonfiction piece – which ends it – is looking at how civil society can move into the future. It’s saying: here’s what has developed over the decades, over the last several decades, so it is more futuristic. The last part is: here’s what we could be doing as civil society, but presented in a nonfiction kind of way.
The first thing I’m going to write when I retire is for my grandchildren: a series of stories about all the dumb things grandfather did. You know, there are family stories about walking into swimming pools and falling down manholes, and all kinds of things that have happened to me over the years that they think are hilariously funny and they want me to write them up. All my friends know those stories and they all make fun of me and that’s fine, I like that.
I remember that when I first had my vision problem, we didn’t know what it was initially. There were like only three other cases of Stargardt’s Disease (a form of juvenile macular degeneration) in North America or something at the time. It wasn’t known very well at that time, and for quite some time they weren’t sure what it was. They finally took me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At one point, they thought maybe it was psychiatric, even, and so I went to a psychiatrist there, and his conclusion was really insulting: it was that I was abnormally normal. This is basically true, I don’t think low vision particularly affects me one way or the other. As my wife knows, there are huge advantages to having a white cane, because I get onto airplanes faster than anyone else does. I’ve gone through the Heathrow Airport from the curb to the gate in 15 minutes! I think low vision certainly makes you focus on what you’re doing, it makes you focus on knowing things, getting them right in your head. I do feel it forces pattern recognition in a way, because it’s absolutely vital for me to figure out how to get to the bathroom and back again. So I’ve got to have figured out how to go there, and when I walk around the city, I try to make a logic out of everything. It’s also about controlling your imagination, because you can’t think that the shadow that’s in front of you is an elephant. But there was once an elephant in Madurai in India. So you’ve got to say, “What’s reasonable here?”
I have a fear of absurdity. I know a wonderful person (I can’t tell you his name): he’s completely rewritten the early years of the work on seeds, which is just silly. He had his first child very late, in his seventies. He wants his legacy for her, and so he’s writing about all these things, and his culture and language, and I don’t want to be in that situation. I don’t want to be so absurdist about history. I think the warts are fine. And I feel comfortable enough in my own skin that I don’t feel like I need to. I hope I don’t need to exaggerate stuff.