Green Veneer: WWF Helps Industry More than Environment

By and Nils Klawitter

Part 3: The Myth of Sustainability

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Andrew Murphy, a young Harvard graduate with African experience in the US Peace Corps, works in the WWF's "Market Transformation" team. He represents the new generation of conservationists. He sees the members of his team as "agents of change," who can "turn" an entire market. Murphy has plenty of these slogans up his sleeve. He says he wants to make the largest producers of and dealers in commodities like soybeans, milk, palm oil, wood and meat more sustainable. And are there successes? Yes, he says, noting that companies now want to see where the commodities come from. "Bulletproof" monitoring systems have been set up, he adds. Murphy is referring to standards like the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS).

The organization invited industry to the RTRS in 2004. Wholesalers like Cargill and companies like Monsanto, which has donated $100,000 to the WWF over the years, had a strong presence at the meeting.

"It quickly became clear that this was greenwashing for the genetically modified soybean marketers," says one attendee, referring to the practice of deceptively marketing a product as environmentally friendly. When a few Europeans wanted to talk about the dangers of the herbicide glyphosate, they were quickly silenced. "The Americans' killer argument was that they were 'technologically neutral.'"

The German branch of WWF, officially opposed to genetic engineering, ensured that those who support it were also welcome at the round table. The Germans even paid the travel expenses for representatives of the Argentine branch of the WWF, which was long run by a man with ties to the former military junta and an agricultural industrialist. No one at the round table was interested in the fact that the WWF, together with Swiss retailers, had already unveiled a stricter soybean standard a long time previously.

Undermining Itself

Undermining its own standards seems to be a specialty of the WWF. In fact, it is this flexibility that brings the organization millions in donations from industry. In the case of soybeans, the group attending the round table meeting negotiated and negotiated. It softened some standards and made some concessions, and then, finally, the first 85,000 tons of RTRS soybeans arrived in Rotterdam last June. "It was a success," says biologist Fleckenstein, noting that the WWF had examined the soybeans carefully. "We were especially pleased that this product was genetically unmodified." The soybeans had come from two giant farms owned by the Brazilian Maggi family.

The family conglomerate is considered the world's largest soybean producer, with plantations covering large parts of the state of Mato Grosso in west central Brazil. The Maggis moved there from southern Brazil in the 1980s, bringing their workers with them. They cleared a large swath of the savannah rainforest and planted soybeans.

Blairo Maggi became the governor of the state, and in 2005 Greenpeace presented him with its "Golden Chainsaw" award. In no other Brazilian state was as much virgin forest cut down as in Maggi's soybean republic. The areas now occupied by his RTRS model farms were cleared only a few years ago. According to RTRS, the two farms are the only suppliers of the 85,000 tons of certified soybeans that arrived in Rotterdam in June.

The only problem is that nothing on the Maggi farms is genetically unmodified.

Satisfying European Demand

A white tank, 10 meters tall and with a capacity of thousands of liters, stands in the shade of a warehouse at the Fazenda Tucunaré farm. The tank is labeled "Glifosato," the Portuguese word for the herbicide glyphosate. The buildings housing the workers are only a few hundred meters away. Behind a fence, there are ditches full of foul-smelling water with a green, shimmering surface. Next to the ditches is a depot where signs with skulls on them warn: "Caution. Highly Toxic!"

Glyphosate is popular as an herbicide for genetically manipulated soybeans, because the plant is resistant to the agent, which kills weeds. Despite a growing number of critical studies showing, for example, that the agent causes reproductive problems in animals, the RTRS system permits its use.

Other pesticides are also not a problem for RTRS, which merely asks that they be "used sensibly," says João Shimada, the sustainability manager at Grupo Maggi. It isn't so easy to explain what happened with the 85,000 tons of soybeans, he says. "In truth, we provided those soybeans to satisfy demand coming from Europe." Since then, companies like Unilever have boasted about using sustainable soybeans. In reality, no more than 8,000 tons came from the two farms.

"I don't know where the other 77,000 tons came from, either," says Shimada.

Cooperating with the Chinese

This magical proliferation of a supposedly sustainable commodity is known in the industry as "book and claim." It is the result of the supposedly bulletproof monitoring system that the young WWF expert Andrew Murphy raves about. Some 300,000 tons of this allegedly sustainable commodity already exist.

In Gland, the sun is setting over Lake Geneva. Murphy is in a hurry. He is on his way to China to save nature there. Although the WWF still isn't permitted to recruit members in China, cooperative agreements with party officials could certainly also be beneficial to the environment.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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