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Any Genebanks on the Road to Rio?

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

4 June 2012

Luigi Guarino

The fact that this year – on June 20, to be precise – the ten-yearly Earth Summit roadshow (or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to give it its full moniker) is returning to where it all started in 1992 has been something of a boon to the tormented souls that have to write about this sort of thing for a living. “Road to Rio” is pleasantly alliterative, lends itself to word-play, and in its punchy, monosyllabic way conveys a much-needed, if perhaps illusory, sense of purpose to the run-up to Rio +20. Best of all, it references a much-loved, though I suspect no longer much watched, classic Hollywood comedy of the 1940s starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby near their peak. No such luck ten years ago in Johannesburg.

I'm not myself entirely convinced that the Road to movies, for all their genial charm, are necessarily the best allusion to use for the preparations to a crucial international meeting, meant to set the sustainable development agenda for the next decade. If you haven't seen Road to Rio, it's about the Latin American misadventures of two lovable but inept musicians, whose very names, Scat Sweeney and Hot Lips Barton, probably tell you more than enough about the whole thing. And it includes this trenchant exchange between a Dorothy Lamour hypnotized against her will and Hot Lips Hope.

  • I don't know what came over me! I found myself saying things, and I didn't know why I was saying them.
  • Look, why don't you just run for Congress and leave us alone?

Neither this hostage to fortune, nor the phrase "Road to Rio" having been trademarked, appears to have stopped headline writers, communications mavens and pundits with literary pretensions riffing on it endlessly. And so in the past few months we've had articles about bumps, potholes, hoofprints, detours, accidents and forks on that metaphorical road. And think pieces about how young people and women and small farmers and First Nations and businesspeople and people of faith are our best guides to its twists and turns. If I had a dollar for every variation on that ambulatory theme, I could probably solve sustainable development myself.

Well, not quite, but wait... The conference as a whole is budgeted at a bit more than $200 million, and that doesn’t cover the cost of the anticipated 150 Heads of State and 50,000 visitors. For one-fifth of that – $40 million – we could safeguard an entire crop, forever.

Frankly, that is not a lot of money as these things go. It’s way less than the average movie costs to make these days, though I suppose things were mercifully different in Bing and Bob’s long-ago, simpler times. Maybe one could raise that sort of money just exploiting the trademark on “Road to Rio.” Or by foisting a small levy on downloads of Bob Hope movies or Bing Crosby tunes. How much did the EU save by downsizing its Rio delegation? I don’t know. But I do know that if you put $40 million into the endowment the Trust is building, you'd be able to ensure the conservation of the diversity of maize (corn to Americans) in genebanks forever. The very diversity that, as it happens, has just been comprehensively filleted, so that we know how it works and how we can use it to improve yields. Think about it. Maize diversity. Safe forever.

What does that have to do with sustainable development? Well, read the Zero Draft of the outcome document of the conference. Paragraph 64, in particular:

64. We reaffirm the right to food and call upon all States to prioritize sustainable intensification of food production through increased investment in local food production, improved access to local and global agri-food markets, and reduced waste throughout the supply chain, with special attention to women, smallholders, youth, and indigenous farmers. We are committed to ensuring proper nutrition for our people.

How is that sustainable intensification going to happen, especially with climate change snapping at our heels, without crop diversity? Forty million dollars now is all it would take for plant breeders to always have access to the genetic raw materials that guarantee that maize will continue to be grown, and thus to contribute to the livelihoods of hundreds millions of farming families around the world, young and old, men and women, small and large, organic and conventional, indigenous and not.

That's a pretty wide, smooth, well-signposted sort of road. One that even Scat and Hot Lips might be expected to amble along without too many pratfalls and mishaps. I for one fervently hope that in ten years’ time Rio +30 will be in Casablanca, simply so that I can sing along with Bing and Bob that “like Webster’s Dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound.” I also hope that by then we’ll  have saved maize.

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