Dutch Parliament: critical debate Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS)

On Thursday 10 September, the Dutch Parliament discussed the outcomes of the last RTRS-conference in Brazil last May, where a set of 'Principles and Criteria' for 'responsible soy' was agreed upon. The Dutch Parliament had called on both the Ministers of Agriculture and Development Cooperation to be present at the debate. Both Ministries support the RTRS financially and politically.

The overall debate was very critical, with the RTRS-criteria being qualified from ‘greenwashing’ (Greens, SP, Animal Rights Party) to ‘very fragile’ (Liberals). The parties were very split on the issue whether the Dutch government should continue supporting the RTRS. Most (including the Ministers) agreed that the agreed RTRS-criteria are not enough for a ‘responsible’ label. The Minister of Agriculture, Gerda Verburg (Christian Democrate), was the only one to maintain that she had never heard of “any NGO that completely rejects the RTRS”. But the international critique on the RTRS had clearly been noticed by all others.

Important to notice and a cause for concern, was that the relation was made between the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit and 'responsible' soy.

The Christian Union (CU) spokeswoman Esmé Wiegman said the criteria decided on at the RTRS conference could not be considered as a ‘norm for a sustainability label’. She rightly pointed out that for one of the most crucial issues, deforestation, a long-term perspective is still lacking. She also questioned the limitation to ‘primary’ forest that should be protected, and how to come to a definition of ‘primary forest’. She also criticised the absence of a criterion on GM/non-GM, and added that so far, she did not see any advantages of GM crops. She therefore suggested there should be a preference-policy for non-GM soy. She also pointed out that in soy production countries, monitoring and control is a major challenge. She finally asked the Minister what she is doing towards less meat consumption and the replacement of soy with locally grown proteins.

The Animal Rights Party (PvdD) was even more critical, asking the government why they are not taking measures against the quantity of soy trade, and instead are supporting the RTRS with such weak results. Spokeswoman Marianne Thieme said that the Netherlands should not be supporting “a panda-logo for a product that does not even stop deforestation”. She also wondered what forest would be qualified as ‘high conservation value areas’, and criticised the very weak criteria on pesticide use and social aspects. She referred to the Wageningen University literature study that shows that on RR soy, ‘equal or more’ pesticides are used than on conventional soy. Thieme also pointed out that RTRS members Rabobank and Unilever have both stated that economies of scale are necessary for soy production, and that excluding RR soy from a ‘responsible’ label would make it far too costly. She argued that ‘responsible’ soy would just serve to continue the much-criticised Dutch factory farming industry. She asked the Minister of Development Cooperation, Bert Koenders (Social Democrate), how much money is actually given to the RTRS process, and why the ‘Initiative Sustainable Trade’ (IDH) is working to get small farmers from India into RTRS projects.

Socialist Party’s Hugo Polderman pointed to the recently published ‘Nature Balance’, a government report that concludes that meat consumption should be reduced. The RTRS should rather be called the RTRRS, he said, the Round Table on RoundupReady Soy. Large scale soy monocultures are intrinsically unsustainable, he said, and this cannot be solved by some weak criteria. This GMO, he said, is made for increases in scale, and for the use of more pesticides. With the government-pushed agrofuel targets on top of it, the demand will only increase, he argued, so the government should not shed crocodile tears over deforestation. He told Minister Verburg, that since she is the chair of a UN Commission on Sustainable Development, her policy should give a strong signal in a different direction. He asked Minister Koenders to assess what the RTRS is going to do about rural depopulation because of soy expansion, welfare of local communities, human rights, local food production, how much forest actually gets saved, and to assess what civil society support the RTRS really has.

Social Democrate member Harm-Evert Waalkens called to critically follow the RTRS process, but to continue the Dutch support for it. He said the emphasis should be on initiatives for small farmers. He expressed concern on the issue of monitoring and control on the local level. He agrees with the RTRS approach that the criteria should be seen separately from the “GM/non-GM” issue. He supported a proposal by the Dutch Soy Coalition to install a ‘Commodity Watchdog’, an independent body that should critically follow the RTRS process. He urged the government to keep supporting stronger criteria such as the Cramer criteria in processes such as the Netherlands-Brazil bilateral cooperation on agrofuels.

Kees Vendrik (Green Party) asked Waalkens whether he though RR soy production could ever be sustainable. Waalkens then acknowledged that the scale is the problem, and that the RR production technology does facilitate the increase in schale of soy production.

The Christian Democrate spokesman said the arguments showed how tough the soy problem is. He nevertheless maintained that the RTRS had managed to mobilise a ‘broad stakeholder platform’. He said this is a process of small steps, that is part of a ‘multi-track’ policy. He urged for more support for small-scale initiatives, but also pointed to the dependency of small scale producers in the soy chain.

Liberal Party member Janneke Sneijder-Hazelhof said she supported the RTRS process, while acknowledging the outcome of the agreement to be ‘very fragile’. She said that the civil society support for the project should be enlarged, and applauded the government support for the RTRS outreach program. She said that deforestation is an issue of concern for the Liberals, and that one solution could be to replace part of the soy animal feed again with animal bone meal. (The use of bone meal for animal feed was banned some years ago because it led to the mad cow disease.)

Green Party member Vendrik called for a stop to the factory farming industry as a real solution to the problem. He said to be shocked by the international declaration signed by over 90 organisations and networks that reject the RTRS. He warned that the RTRS could lead to a ‘greenwashing’ label for unsustainable soy. He asked the Ministers for a judgement of the criteria, for all ‘holes’ to be idemtified, and a justification of the Dutch government’s subsidies for the RTRS. He also asked for a guarantee of a GMO-free chain.

Minister Verburg said she was happy with with RTRS agreement, and that ‘all stakeholders were involved’ in the process. She said to strongly object to the complaint that the Dutch government is cooperating in a greenwashing project by supporting the RTRS. But she also stressed that this agreement for her was not ‘satisfactory’ as an end result. One issue she touched on was the premium price for ‘responsible’ soy, that would be necessary to cover the costs. She said this would be a responsibility for NGO’s, to help increase consumer awareness and therefore willingness to pay more for ‘responsible’ meat. GMO’s, according to her, are not a matter of ‘whether’ but ‘how’. Monitoring and control are a matter of the national governments, she said, implicitly admitting that monitoring and control of the implementation of the criteria is hardly likely to succeed, since national laws are generally of little meaning in soy producing countries.
She announced that the RTRS will create a public platform on the internet to spark more open debate. As for the alternatives, she had commissioned a study into the economic viability of locally grown proteins, but the conclusion was that ‘this is currently not viable’ for the Dutch intensive meat industry.

Minister Koenders said that support for the RTRS should be continued, because ‘international regulation goes too slow’. For him, the RTRS is currently the only way to get to sustainability criteria for soy, and should not be abandoned too easily. He says that ‘land rights are crucial’, and had therefore send a special human rights embassador to Brazil to look into this question.
Koenders acknowledged that broad support is crucial, and mentioned the recently RTRS members that left the process (APROSOJA and FUNDAPAZ). He considered this to be ‘interesting’ and only more reason to continue to support the outreach program of the RTRS. He mentioned support for initiatives with ‘small farmers’ from India producing RTRS soy, a cooperation between IDH and Solidaridad. He said not to support the Dutch Soy Coalition proposal for a ‘commodity watchdog’, as he considered that anyone could take on the role of a ‘watchdog’. He promised the Animal Rights Party to provide the Parliament with a break down of all government subsidies spent on the RTRS.

Several Parliamentarians asked both Ministers directly again if they considered RR soy (and not GMO’s in general) to be a ‘sustainable’ production.

Higher price for ‘responsible’ soy: what role for Copenhagen?

One of the issues in the debate was how ‘responsible’ soy would be financed. Minister Verburg said she did not see a role for the government in this, and that NGO’s should take on the role to convince consumers to pay more for meat and dairy products produced with ‘responsible’ soy feed. It’s a big question however which organisations in the Netherlands, apart from Solidaridad and WWF, will be willing to take on this role as it now stands.

Some speakers suggested that reduced deforestation, if proven a result from ‘responsible’ soy, could be rewarded with carbon credits. This according to the Christian Union, should be a way to support specifically small farmers.

Minister Verburg said that when looking at the environmental impact of RR soy, one should also look at ‘less CO2-emission because of less ploughing’, an argument reflecting Monsanto’s decade-old lobby for carbon credits for RR soy. Recently, a CDM methodology was approved for soy seed-treatment with a bacterium that allegedly will increase the nitrogen-fixing capability of the soy, supposedly decreasing the need for applying artificial fertilisers, that are very climate unfriendly. Monsanto has now announced that they will apply this treatment (patented by Becker Underwood) to all their new-generation RR soy seed. This is a first case where soy monocultures can be supplied with climate subsidies, showing how perverse UN climate policy has become.

The next step would be carbon credits for RR soy itself. Both carbon credits or a ‘responsible’ label for RR soy would be a dream come true for Monsanto et al. It is not clear to what extent politicians are aware of this. Minister Koenders too mentioned that ‘responsible’ soy should be linked to Copenhagen. It was not clear whether he was referring only to supposed ‘reduced deforestation’ because of certified soy, or also the ‘no-till’ soil issue.

Thieme stressed that ‘no-till’ (this means less ploughing of the soil for weed control, often said to be causing a lot of CO2-emissions from the soil) is not confined to RR soy producion and can also be used in conventional or organic agriculture.

There seems to be little awareness of the soy and biotech industry attempts to get carbon credits and CDM money for herbicide-resistant (‘no-till’) crops, and for RR soy in particular.

WWF too is now openly calling for carbon credits for RTRS-certified soy. “The challenge now is to find mechanisms to reward producers who protect forests and soil by allowing them to sell carbon along with their soy," said Jason Clay recently. “This is a win-win-win situation. Forests and soil are protected, producers have an additional source of income, and retailers and brands can now buy responsible soy as a way to reduce their carbon footprint.”

This debate will continue, such as in the upcoming debate in the Dutch parliament on biodiversity on 23 September, where Copenhagen is on the agenda.