Stevia-Derived Sweeteners Violate Indigenous Rights

A new report, published by a coalition of NGOs and scientific institutions (1), shows that the current hype around Stevia results in the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, misleading marketing, and controversial synthetic biology. The basis for all the current commercialization of Stevia-derived sweeteners comes from the traditional knowledge of the impoverished Guaraní people in Paraguay and Brazil. In spite of this, the Guaraní have neither given their consent for the use of their knowledge, nor have they received any benefit-sharing as stipulated by the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Nagoya Protocol.

The report The Bittersweet Taste of Stevia points out that the rights of indigenous peoples, enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Nagoya Protocol, are neglected when Stevia-derived steviol glycosides, which are “high-intensity sweeteners” used to sweeten products such as diet soda drinks, are produced and marketed today. “The ongoing commercial use of Ka’a He’e is an act of cruel piracy,” says the Guaraní leader Luis Arce, referring to the traditional name of Stevia rebaudiana.

When commercializing products sweetened with steviol glycosides (as, for example, Coca-Cola Life), a lot of effort is put into emphasizing the “natural” aspect of these soft drinks, and even the traditional knowledge of the Guaraní. This misleads consumers, as steviol glycosides have little in common with the traditional use of whole Stevia leaves, which are prohibited for sale as sweeteners in US, EU and Swiss markets. In addition, the production of these steviol glycosides is monopolized by a few companies holding almost 50% of the relevant patents.

Furthermore, a race is under way to produce steviol glycosides via synthetic biology (SynBio) instead of extracting them from leaves. This race, led by the companies Evolva (CH), Stevia First (US) and DSM (NL), will not only impact manufacturers of steviol glycosides: if SynBio steviol glycosides are commercialized, it is likely that there will be severe negative impacts on small holder farmers growing Stevia, in Paraguay and elsewhere. Moreover, there is a risk that consumers will be misled again: neither Coca-Cola nor PepsiCo answered the question as to whether they intend to use synthetic steviol glycosides in their food and beverages in the future, and if yes, whether they would change their labeling and advertisements as well as their communication strategy accordingly.

Therefore the publishers of the report request that the producers and users of steviol glycosides commit to a mediated engagement with the Guaraní to agree how to share the benefits of the commercialization of steviol glycosides in a fair and equitable manner. Governments and sellers of products containing steviol glycosides need to make sure that any misleading advertisements are stopped. Finally, governments should also ensure that producers do not produce or market steviol glycosides based on synthetic biology in the absence of an independent socio-economic impact assessment with a positive outcome, as requested by the parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity. If steviol glycosides produced via synthetic biology are placed on the market, governments must ensure that companies selling the end products are obliged to clearly label them as such.

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