Stevia has been presented as a new groundbreaking innovation in sweeteners. More "natural" products that contain stevia are arriving on the market every day. However, the Guarani people from Paraguay and Brazil, who discovered the plant's sweetening powers, do not receive any share in the profits earned using their ancestral knowledge, in contravention of the Convention on Biological Diversity. A Public Eye report has revealed the real story of what's happening with Stevia.
The new "Life" version of Coca-cola, sweetened with steviol glycosides, has also been released in Switzerland. Unlike the marketing teams in Germany would have you believe, the plant itself isn't actually used, it's steviol glycoside instead, which is a molecule that is industrially extracted using a complex set of chemical procedures (see graph below). The American brand is far from the only one that makes the most of the sweetening properties of this molecule, which can be up to 300 times stronger than sugar. Steviol glycoside, which also has the advantage of not causing diabetes or cavities, is increasingly looking like an interesting proposal for the food and drinks industry, particularly because of its reasonable production costs.
Drinks, chocolate, sweets... new products containing steviol glycoside appear on the market every day. For 2015, the turnover it generated, which is growing fast, was already estimated to be between eight and eleven billion Swiss francs. A "miracle" plant with natural sweetening properties used by the Guarani for centuries, which is taking the market by storm as an alternative to sugar. It sounds a bit like some form of modern-day fairytale! But is it really? Public Eye's "The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia (PDF, 3.9 MB)" report published in November 2015 explores what's really going on.
Multinationals are making themselves wealthier at the expense of the Guarani.
The sale of steviol glycoside is a classic case of "biopiracy": an illegitimate appropriation of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, in force since 1993, is supposed to stop exactly this kind of abuse, since it states that the consent of autochthonous communities is required for the commercial use of "their" resources ("prior informed consent"). They must also be provided a fair share of the benefits derived from the use of their resources ("access and sharing of benefits"). Specifically, this means that if someone wants to use stevia for commercial purposes, then the Guarani people and the states of Brazil and Paraguay must have the choice of consenting, or not, and where applicable they must receive a share of the resulting benefits.
But the reality of what is actually happening is far removed from the model laid down by the convention. The current situation has been allowed to develop since neither the Convention on Biological Diversity nor the agreement regulating its implementation, the Nagoya Protocol, are properly applied by some countries, while others, including the United States, have yet to ratify them. As such, nefarious actors in the food and drinks industry continue to enrich themselves with impunity as they use "stolen" resources. Currently, small farms that grow stevia can get by in their role as suppliers, but meanwhile a number of multinational companies are racing to register patents to ensure they get as much as they can from this juicy new market. At the end of 2014, more than 1000 patent requests associated with stevia had already been registered , 450 of which were specifically for steviol glycosides. From the latter, 46% were deposited by just eight companies. The companies registering the most patent requests were the multinationals Cargill and Coca-Cola.
Using synthetic biology
Paraguay and Brazil play a very limited role in the sale of stevia plants to companies that extract glycosides. In 2011, 80% of all the stevia produced for commercial use came from China. Paraguay only produced 5%, while Brazil produced a mere 3%. The most common model is for the stevia to be grown by small scale producers that grow a range of crops. This plant has vast potential, because despite the considerable work that goes into growing it, it can return a significant profit. Synthetic steviol glycosides will soon be on the market, and if they come to dominate the market, the countries that grow stevia will have no market to sell to, with all benefits going to large companies in the North. It's time to act!
Developments since the report was published
The situation has developed since the publication of Public Eye's "The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia". Public Eye has opened discussions with companies that sell products sweetened with steviol glycosides on the subject of negotiations with the Guarani. Meanwhile, the Guarani have also started to organise.
The Guarani organising
Exceptional event: more than a hundred representatives of Guarani communities held a meeting in Paraguay in 2016, to demand a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of "their" stevia. This type of meeting hadn't happened for several years. The Pai Tavytera and the Kaiowa have numerous family links, but since they are separated by a national border, they don't normally meet for joint political actions.
For a fair share of benefits from the sale of stevia.
The Guarani are determined that their rights as owners of the traditional knowledge associated with stevia must be respected. They are, however, open to the proposal of negotiating an agreement to share benefits with companies. There's a need to be realistic: the Guarani are no longer in a position to stop the food industry giants from using stevia and their knowledge. As such, they hope to at least receive compensation. Access to their lands is the most important aspect for them. The hope is that the income from an eventual agreement would allow them to recover part of their ancestral land and reconstitute the land where stevia grew historically.
To conclude the meeting, a shared declaration was adopted to demand "the respect of [their] territory, [their] world view, [their] culture and [their] sovereignty" and, more specifically, to demand a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the use of their knowledge associated with stevia. "We denounce the multinational corporations that profit from our knowledge and our biodiversity through using and selling our "ka’a he’ê" (Stevia rebaudiana), without us, its true owners, the Pai Tavytera and the Kaiowa, having been consulted. "
Dialogue with companies
Are companies prepared to negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement? In order to find out, Public Eye contacted the largest producers and users of stevia-derived sweetners, to investigate their thoughts on the possibility of sharing benefits with the Guarani. Initial results have been encouraging: although some of the companies we approached refused to make any comment, several others are willing to enter negotiations with a view to a fair and equitable sharing of benefits with the Guarani. Faced with our questions, some companies, such as Unilever or Ricola, simply haven't responded. Others, such as Coca Cola or PepsiCo replied... to say that they wouldn't reply. We are still happy to report that we did receive a number of positive replies though, especially from Switzerland.
- The company Evolva – which works in partnership with Cargill to produce steviol glycosides from synthetic biology – would be “willing to engage in discussions regarding benefit sharing with the Guarani as per the spirit of the Convention on Biological Diversity”.
- Nestlé (Switzerland) said it “fully supports the principle of fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources as described in the Convention on Biological Diversity and is currently evaluating the possibility of further engaging into the issue”.
- Swiss supermarktet Migros stressed its support for the principles of benefit sharing with Indigenous Peoples and the countries of origin, and added that it would be ready to discuss it directly with it suppliers in the case of steviol glycosides.
- In Switzerland again, Goba (soft drinks), indicated its willingness to cooperate in implementing the idea of benefit sharing with the Guarani. Similarly, Bernrain (chocolate) expressed its support for benefit sharing and its willingness to work with suppliers that source their raw material from the countries of origin and share benefits with the Guarani.
The follow-up report "Stevia: the path to a benefit sharing agreement (PDF, 2.1 MB)" published in 2016 discusses the initial results from our discussions with companies, the demands made by the Guarani, and the latest legal developments since the publication of the original report in 2015.
What we are calling for: an equitable solution to protect from biopiracy
The companies that produce or use steviol glycosides are currently attempting to eliminate the bitter after-taste in its flavour. But there's a whole other kind of bitter after-taste that they should be focusing on, which comes from their disingenuous behaviour that deprives the Guarani of the compensation that they are entitled to in return for the use of their ancestral knowledge. Our hope is that a number of companies, aware of their social responsibility, will take the pioneering step of coming to a common agreement with the Guarani that includes a commitment to share the benefits arising from the sale of stevia. With regards to the Guarani, they need to specify their approach to possible negotiations and their intentions of how they would use any eventual benefits.
- The multinationals like Cargill or Coca-Cola, who produce or use steviol glycosides, need to immediately begin negotiations with the Guarani to determine how to share the benefits and advantages that they get from using stevia.
- Synthesised steviol glycosides must not be produced or sold when their socio-economic impact has not been demonstrated by research.
- The multinationals need to end their campaign of misinformation about the products they sweeten with stevol glycosides and stop presenting them as "natural" or "produced by the traditional knowledge of the Guarani".
Our petition - together with SumOfUs, Pro Stevia Schweiz and Fondation Danielle Mitterrand - asks Coca-Cola to commit to mediated engagement with the Guaraní to agree on how to share the benefits of Stevia-based products fairly.
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By uncovering the hidden face of the Stevia market and stimulating dialogue between industry and its country of origin, Public Eye is acting to ensure the rights of the Guarani are recognised and respected. Every donation supports the work we do in this areas, so that the rights of the world's most vulnerable people are not merely swept aside by the actions of a few unscrupulous multinationals. We are very grateful for any support received!
— A report by the Berne Declaration (now called Public Eye), Pro Stevia, CEIDRA and the University of Hohenhem discussing the bitter-sweet taste of the Stevia market.
— This follow-up report presents developments that have occured since the publication of the "Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia" report, and suggests the next steps to take.
— The complete report in Spanish.
— Spanish version of the follow-up report.