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New book plants seed for biodiverse food production

(Flagstaff, Ariz., Jan. 2009) A Northern Arizona University political science professor is working with Southern African farmers studying their agricultural expertise and exposing trade agreements that could threaten the world's food supply.

For more than 30 years, Carol Thompson has been consulting on international agriculture trade issues, spending months or years at a time living in Southern African countries studying agricultural expertise and working to "expose constraining trade agreements imposed upon African farmers."

Her recent book, Biopiracy of Biodiversity - Global Exchange as Enclosure, analyzes current international agricultural trade policies, explains how they originated, and how they are impacting the world and indigenous cultures.

"The future of the planet depends not so much on military power nor on capital speculation but on each one of us making daily food choices that affect global exchange or enclosure of biodiversityour collective nourishment, our wealth," Thompson explains.

Cowritten with Andrew Mushita, director of the Community Technology Development Trust in Zimbabwe, the book analyzes international policies for sustainable farming, the successes and failures of industrial agriculture, and the need to preserve biodiversity as a policy for future food security.

"Today only 12 plants provide 75 percent of the food in industrialized countries, making us all vulnerable," Thompson says. "Africans still rely on 2,000 plants for their food biodiversity."

The book tackles complex issues such as the World Trade Organization's patenting strategies that are "exploiting natural resources," she says.

"Biopiracy may be a new word, but the act is old," remarks Thompson, who often dresses in colorful African fabric dyed by some of the plants she is hoping will be protected. "Biopiracy is the taking of organisms, such as plants or seeds, from communities where they are shared by all, and their patenting by corporations, which privatize a living organism for profitable gain."

The problem is that although it is traditional for farmers in Southern African countries to share seeds and their knowledge about them, it also is becoming common practice for other countries to profit from the seeds and their healing benefits without compensating the original farmers.

"Pharmaceutical corporations are privatizing and patenting the genes of plants to sell for profit," she continues. "It is actually the stealing of plants that were once shared and given as gifts from indigenous farmers throughout 7,000 years of agriculture."

Thompson says the corporate pillaging of seeds is destroying the world's biodiversity, and the book stresses the need for policy alternatives.

"With trade policies as open as they are, fields and species are often destroyed or polluted by newer genetically modified organisms," Thompson notes. "The healing properties of indigenous plants also define local communities, which are becoming powerless as corporations get stronger."

Thompson cites the plant hoodia, nurtured by the San peoples in Southern Africa, as an example of trade agreements gone wrong. When nomadic hunters and gatherers pointed out its characteristics as a hunger-suppressing plant, corporations quickly produced a diet pill, making millions in profit, but only .0001 percent of the profit goes back to the San.

"I am a political economist who is seeing that if you only spend time taking local initiatives, you can be crushed by international laws and control," she says.

Thompson's current work with Southern African farmers includes working on policies to protect their knowledge about adapting crops for the implications of climate change.

She has served as a consultant for various international organizations, including the Southern African Development Community, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and UNICEF. Her primary research focus is on the impact of international finance and trade on food security.


Contact: Diane Rechel
Northern Arizona University

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