Junk Food Makers Target Blacks and Latinos, Increasing Risks From COVID

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In the United States, Covid-19 appears to be infecting, hospitalizing and killing black people and Latinos at alarmingly high rates, with data from several states illustrating this pattern. Health disparities in nutrition and obesity, often deriving from structural racism, correlate closely with the alarming racial and ethnic disparities related to Covid-19. See, “Covid-19 and Disparities in Nutrition and Obesity” in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 15, 2020) .

Structural inequalities across U.S. society contribute to this problem, including unequal access to fresh healthy foods, unequal access to health care, socioeconomic factors and excess exposure to toxic chemicals and unhealthy air, to name a few. For more information about structural inequities in our food system, see resources from Duke University’s World Food Policy Center and the Food First Institute for Development and Food Policy.

Another problem is that food companies specifically and disproportionately target communities of color with their marketing for junk food products. In this post we are tracking news coverage and studies about racial disparities in junk food advertising. Please send additions to stacy@usrtk.org.

Data on the disproportionate targeting of junk food advertising and marketing to communities of color

Is obesity a manifestation of systemic racism? A ten-point strategy for study and intervention, by D.G. Aaron and F.C. Stanford, Journal of Internal Medicine perspectives (2021) Are higher obesity rates in minority groups a product of systemic racism? Mass General EurekAlert press release (3.8.21)

Increasing disparities in unhealthy food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; Council on Black Health (January 2019)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Rudd Center of Food Policy and Obesity (May 2016)

Food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth: Contributing to health disparities, Rudd Center for Food Policy, AACORN, Salud America! (August 2015)

Limit junk-food ads that contribute to childhood obesity, Statement by the American Medical Association (2018)

Health equity & junk food marketing: talking about targeting kids of color, Berkeley Media Studies Group (2017)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Pediatric Obesity (2016)

To Choose (Not) to Eat Healthy: Social Norms, Self‐affirmation, and Food Choice, by Aarti Ivanic, Psychology and Marketing (July 2016)

Disparities in Obesity-Related Outdoor Advertising by Neighborhood Income and Race, Journal of Urban Health (2015)

Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants, American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2014)

Racial/Ethnic and Income Disparities in Child and Adolescent Exposure to Food and Beverage Television Ads across U.S. Media Markets, Health Place (2014)

Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Black Americans’ Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(2011)

The Context for Choice: Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African Americans, American Journal of Public Health (2008)

Fast Food: Oppression through Poor NutritionCalifornia Law Review (2007)

The Health Impact of Targeted Marketing: An Interview with Sonya Grier, Corporations and Health Watch (2010)

News coverage and perspectives

Junk Food Ads Are Still Targeting Kids of Color: For Black and Latino communities that already have higher rates of diabetes and obesity, fast-food advertising adds another layer to intergenerational health inequities, by Elena Gooray, Vice News (9.16.21)

Racism and obesity are inextricably linked, says a Harvard doctor – and here’s how she thinks that can change, by Arianna MacNeill, Boston.com (4.12.21)

What does junk food have to do with COVID-19 deaths? by Carey Gillam, Environmental Health News (4.28.20).

Junk food ads disproportionately target black and Hispanic kids: report, by Lisa Rapaport, Reuters (1.17.19)

Black and Hispanic youth are targeted with junk food ads, research shows, by Jessica Ravitz, CNN (1.15.19)

People of color have the highest obesity rates in the US. Food marketing is part of the problem: Interview with Aarti Ivanic by Nadra Little, Vox (9.28.18)

Study: Black children are exposed to junk-food ads way more than white kids are, by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post (12.15.16)

Exposé on how McDonald’s and Burger King targeted African Americans in the 1970s, by Lenika Cruz, The Atlantic (6.7.15)

Fast-Food Chains Disproportionately Target Black Children, by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic (11.13.14)

Fast food marketing for children disproportionately affects certain communities, Arizona State University (10.14)

Fast Food Restaurants Are Targeting Black Kids with Their Advertising, by Laura Rotham, Vice (11.17.14) 

Targeted Marketing Of Junk Food To Ethnic Minority Youth: Fighting Back With Legal Advocacy And Community Engagement, ChangeLab Solutions (2012)

Critiques of Gates Foundation agricultural interventions in Africa

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent nearly $6 billion on agricultural development programs with a key focus on expanding industrial agriculture in Africa. Leading experts in food security, Africa’s leading civil society network, and hundreds of groups around the world say the foundation’s “green revolution” agricultural program for Africa is exacerbating hunger, inequality and climate change. They argue a paradigm shift is needed away from high-input, chemical-dependent, corporate controlled farming models and toward agroecological approaches that can provide more abundant and nutritious foods, protect biodiversity and address the structural inequalities at the heart of the hunger crisis.

This fact sheet links to reports and news articles describing these concerns. We update it regularly.

Table of contents (drop links) 
Top recent Gates Foundation food-related news
Opposition from African groups
UN Food Systems Summit controversy
Gates Foundation funding for agricultural development
Critiques of the Green Revolution for Africa

GMOs in the Global South
Gates Foundation’s media influence
More Gates Foundation food news
U.S. Right to Know reporting 

Overview of critiques 

The Gates Foundation’s flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, works to transition farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. The foundation says its goal is to “boost the yields and incomes of millions of small farmers in Africa… so they can lift themselves and their families out of hunger and poverty.” 

The strategy is modeled on the Indian “green revolution” that boosted production of staple crops but also left a legacy of inequity, environmental problems and entrenched corporate control over food systems, leading to a massive mobilization of peasant farmers who are demanding change. Several recent reports provide evidence that the Gates-led agricultural interventions in Africa have also failed to help small farmers and may be worsening the hunger and malnutrition crisis there.

“we write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

Letter from African faith leaders

Against this backdrop, agribusinesses interests and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, are staging what critics describe as power plays to solidify control over global agriculture policies at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. These include proposals to implement a new framework for food systems governance and centralize control over agricultural research centers. This is “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems,” says the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and “part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.”

Recent Gates Foundation food-related news

Opposition to funding for industrial agriculture

Recent media coverage on “green revolution” controversy  

UN Food Systems Summit (read more about Gates Foundation role here)

African groups call out Gates Foundation 

Food sovereignty and civil society groups, faith leaders, and farmer, labor and environmental organizations across Africa have raised concerns for many years about Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategies for Africa, and the foundation’s sway over public spending and government policies. 

“They talk about transforming African agriculture but what they are doing is creating a market for themselves.”

Million Belay, AFSA

In dozens of reports since 2007, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity has documented numerous problems with the Gates-led “green revolution” for Africa. These include subsidy deals, growing corporate control of the seed sector, expanding use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, escalation to more toxic pesticides as pests develop resistance to genetically modified (GMO) seeds, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and negative impacts on small farmers. The group and many others are calling for a transition to agroecological practices and policies that allow food sovereignty.

African groups have also called out the neocolonial dynamics of Gates Foundation funding for Africa. These critics say the foundation and other private donors, investors, agribusiness corporations and Western governments are pushing a false narrative that Africa’s farmers need to buy patented seeds and agrichemicals developed by Western corporations in order to produce enough food.  They say African farmers and communities should decide how to shape Africa’s food systems. 

Resources and statements from African groups  

Recent reporting and perspectives on African food systems 

UN Food Systems Summit controversy 

The World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and other private donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation, are key players influencing the controversial 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Hundreds of groups are protesting and boycotting the Summit because of the dominant role of corporate agribusiness and agenda many critics say will further entrench a harmful industrial agribusiness model. 

“A misguided technological revolution is about to sweep through food systems, but civil society and social movements can stop it in its tracks.”

Nick Jacobs, IPES-Food, Common Dreams 

The summit is led by Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata, president of the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA). Her chief of staff is Adam Gerstenmier, formerly of AGRA and the Gates Foundation. UN insiders have harshly criticized the summit process, saying its leaders have ignored human rights, marginalized civil society and restructured the UN process to shift power away from the UN Committee on World Food Security into the hands of a small set of private sector actors.  

“Few people will dispute that global food systems need transformation, but this UNFSS is instead an effort by a powerful alliance of multinational corporations, philanthropies, and export-oriented countries to subvert multilateral institutions of food governance,” IPES-Food wrote in a June 3 Tweet thread. The expert panel announced June 26 that they will withdraw from the Summit. 

Statements critiquing the food summit 

Reports about food systems governance and transformation   

News coverage and perspectives on food summit 

How the Gates Foundation funds agricultural development

The Gates Foundation has spent nearly $6 billion on agricultural development programs, with a primary focus on transforming African food systems. Several groups have analyzed the foundation’s agricultural development funding. The following themes emerge from that research. 

Funding researchers and groups in the North, not farmers in Africa. A June 2021 analysis of 1,130 Gates Foundation grants for agriculture since 2003 found the grants are “heavily skewed to technologies developed by research centres and corporations in the North for poor farmers in the South, completely ignoring the knowledge, technologies and biodiversity that these farmers already possess,” according to the GRAIN research group. Many of the grants were given to “groups that lobby on behalf of industrial farming and undermine alternatives,” GRAIN wrote. 

Supporting industrial agriculture: As many as 85% of Gates Foundation-funded agricultural research projects for Africa “were limited to supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency via targeted approaches,” according to a 2020 report by IPES-Food. The foundation “looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.” Just 3% of Gates Foundation projects included elements of agroecological redesign.  

The largest recipient of Gates agricultural grants is CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), the world’s largest global agricultural research network. The Gates Foundation has donated over $1.3 billion to the influential research centers. In a July 2020 letter, IPES-Food raised concerns about Gates Foundation’s involvement in a “coercive” process to centralize control of the CGIAR research network into “One CGIAR” with a centralized board and new agenda setting powers. The reforms on the table “risk exacerbating power imbalances in global agricultural development,” IPES said. 

Expanding markets for commercial seeds and fertilizer: The second largest single recipient of Gates grant funding for agriculture is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with $638 million in grants to date. AGRA’s primary focus is increasing farmers’ access to commercial seeds and fertilizers that AGRA said would boost yields and lift small farmers out of poverty. This “green revolution” technology package of commercial seeds and agrichemicals is further supported by about $1 billion per year in subsidies from African governments, but evidence shows these interventions have not delivered the promised boost in yields or incomes (see “green revolution” section below).  

Removing barriers to agribusiness expansion: The Gates Foundation is among the five top donors (along with the US, UK, Danish, and Dutch governments) of the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) program that guides policymaking for pro-business reforms in the agriculture sector. The Oakland Institute and GRAIN research group have produced several reports about efforts by the World Bank and its funders to strengthen private property and intellectual property rights, and promote large-scale land acquisitions that benefit private actors. 

Reports on Gates Foundation funding and influence 

Gates Foundation perspectives

Critiques of the “Green Revolution” for Africa 

The Gates Foundation’s flagship program for changing African agriculture is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The group works to encourage farmers to use hybrid seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and agrichemicals to grow staple crops for the global market, with the goal of boosting yields and raising farmer incomes. AGRA promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. The deadline has passed (and the language since removed from AGRA’s website) with no comprehensive reporting on progress.

Independent assessments by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups provide evidence that AGRA has not delivered significant yield or income gains for small farmers while hunger has grown by 30% across AGRA’s target countries. AGRA disagreed with the research but has not released data evaluating its results for over 15 years.

From the start, food policy experts predicted the green revolution for Africa would not solve hunger and poverty, because it ignored structural inequalities and the harsh lessons of the first green revolution in India. Over the past year, farmers in India have launched protests to oppose corporate control of their food systems and deepening inequality. 

Independent reports

AGRA perspectives and reports 

News coverage and critical perspectives

GMOs in the Global South

Bill Gates has said genetically engineered crops will “end starvation in Africa,” and he invests heavily in GMO research and development. But African governments, civil society and farmer organizations have long resisted GMO crops. They cite many concerns, including corporate control of seed stock, loss of traditional crops and local seed varieties, higher cost of GMO seeds, increased use of herbicides associated with GMO crops, the limitations of GMO crops to perform in complex environments, and doubts the crops will ever live up to the promotional hype. 

“The empirical record of GM crops for poor small farmers in the Global South has not lived up to expectations.”

Brian Dowd-Uribe, USFCA

The two largest introductions of GMO crops for small farmers in the Global South — Bt cotton crops in Burkina Faso and India — have been problematic for small farmers. Burkina Faso abandoned its genetically modified Bt cotton experiment after the seeds failed to deliver the same quality as the homegrown variety. In India, 20 years of data on Bt cotton found no yield increase associated with the crops, and determined that farmers are now spending more on pesticides than before the introduction of Bt due in part to insect resistance. A 2020 study in African Affairs found that nearly 30 years of strategic and well-funded efforts to bring GMOs to Africa have so far yielded very little. 

In South Africa, most of the country’s staple maize food crop is genetically modified to resist glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the  World Health Organization, classifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, and many local groups have raised health concerns about the prevalent use of the herbicides. 

Reports and articles about GMOs in the Global South   

Statements from NGOs and scientists 

Gates influence on media and food narratives

“News about (Bill) Gates these days is often filtered through the perspectives of the many academics, nonprofits, and think tanks that Gates funds. Sometimes it is delivered to readers by newsrooms with financial ties to the foundation,” reported Tim Schwab in Columbia Journalism Review. He documents more than $250 million in Gates grants to a variety of top news outlets.

“paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks.”

Fern Holland, Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, Cornell Daily Sun

The Gates Foundation also funds many groups that work to shape public views on agriculture. One example is the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign based at Cornell University, launched with a Gates Foundation grant in 2014 to “depolarize the charged debate” around GMOs.” The group trains global fellows, particularly in Africa, to promote GMOs in their home countries. Cornell Alliance for Science affiliates were also active in opposing pesticide regulations in Hawaii. Gates Foundation has donated $22 million to the group.

Cornell Alliance for Science critiques 

Reporting on Gates’ media influence

More Gates Foundation news  

Reporting by U.S. Right to Know 

Follow our Bill Gates Food Tracker for more Gates Foundation-related reporting and sign up here for email updates. You can make a tax-deductible donation here to support the U.S. Right to Know investigations.  

 

African groups want Gates Foundation, USAID to shift agricultural funding as hunger crisis worsens 

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Billions of dollars in aid and subsidies for industrial agriculture in Africa are harming food security in one of the world’s hungriest regions, according to a network of African groups asking donors to switch their funding to African-led efforts and agroecology. 

In a letter delivered Tuesday, 200 organizations led by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa asked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors to stop financing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The billion-dollar effort has “unequivocally failed in its mission” and “harmed broader efforts to support African farmers,” the groups said. 

The groups delivered their letter as donors gathered for the African Green Revolution Forum this week in Nairobi, Kenya. The annual fundraising event established by Yara International fertilizer company says it is “designed to energize the political will” for policies and investments in sustainable agricultural transformation. The Forum, funded by chemical companies, private donors and other partners, said it will “elevate the single coordinated African voice” to the United Nations Food Systems Summit later this month. 

African Green Revolution Forum partners 

That claim rankled African groups and many others who have been calling on UN leaders for two years to champion human rights, food sovereignty and ecology at the 2021 Food Summit, and say their concerns have been ignored. 

“No, no, no. We are here to state clearly and categorically that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa does not speak for Africans,” said Anne Maina, director of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya. Her group and hundreds of others are boycotting the UN Summit because, they say, it has been captured by corporations and donors who are pushing technological solutions for hunger while ignoring systemic changes necessary to address hunger and poverty.

That AGRA’s president, Agnes Kalibata, is leading the UN food summit is a conflict of interest, critics said, because AGRA is also fundraising for its own programs.

Failing ‘green revolution’? 

Hunger has worsened considerably since the Gates and Rockefeller foundations led a high-profile effort to bring the “green revolution” to Africa in 2006. AGRA’s main focus is transitioning farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizer and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. Bill Gates predicted that increasing inputs would boost agricultural productivity, alleviate hunger and lift small-scale farmers out of poverty. 

AGRA has since raised more than $1 billion, mostly from the Gates Foundation, on promises it would double yields and incomes for 30 million African farmers and cut food insecurity in half by 2020. Instead, the number of severely undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2006, according to the latest UN hunger report. The report paints an alarming picture of the ongoing food crisis in Africa worsened by the pandemic.  

The AGRA goals were removed from the group’s website in 2020 

In their letter to donors, AGRA critics said a decade of research has exposed the failures of the green revolution model. AGRA uses its leverage to encourage African governments to focus on boosting agricultural yields rather than more systemic solutions, they said, noting that African governments in AGRA target countries spend about $1 billion a year on input subsidies.

Academic research suggests AGRA and the larger green revolution effort has had little if any positive impact on Africa’s small-scale farmers. Reports published in 2020 by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups found slow productivity growth for staple crops and no evidence of rising incomes for small-scale farmers. The evidence also suggests that farmers are abandoning more nutritious, climate-resilient crops, such as millet, to grow maize. 

AGRA views

AGRA disagreed with the research but has not produced comprehensive reporting of its results over 15 years. The lofty 2020 goals were removed from AGRA’s website sometime last year as the group underwent a strategy reboot with the help of McKinsey & Company, a controversial U.S.-based business management firm. AGRA has “not reduced our ambition, but (we) have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate,” Andrew Cox, chief of strategy, told USRTK. 

“At farmer level, AGRA focuses on creating the conditions for the smallholder farmers to have access to yield-increasing inputs (seeds, soil fertilizer, good agronomic practices to have better yields under normal conditions), and also facilitates access to storage facilities, and markets to sell their surplus production,” Cox said. “Our thinking on farmer incomes has thus moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.” He said AGRA will publish a full evaluation of results and progress at the end of its 2021 strategy period.

He also expressed frustration with the Tufts report criticizing AGRA. “The data used was years old national level data, including on Zambia, where we haven’t been operational in for many years.  The data could not possibly be extrapolated onto the kinds of regional / sub regional work that we do,” Cox wrote via email. “This has been extremely frustrating, not least as transforming (agriculture) in Africa is difficult, and we should all be trying to learn in supporting farmers who have had a pretty raw deal over the decades.”

The AFSA groups, however, said AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s efforts have been top-down and deaf to the concerns Africa’s small-scale food producers have raised. 

“We welcome investment in agriculture on our continent,”  Million Belay, PhD, and Bridget Mugambe of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), wrote in a recent Scientific American article. “But we seek it in a form that is democratic and responsive to the people at the heart of agriculture.”

Investments in agroecology

AFSA is asking donors to transition their financial and political support to African-led efforts to expand agroecology and low-input farming methods they say can provide more abundant, nutritious foods, protect the environment and create a more equitable, sustainable food system. Leading experts in food security and nutrition have also called for a paradigm shift away from chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and toward agroecology and policies that address social issues and inequality. 

However, donors such as the Gates Foundation — the leading private donor to agricultural development in Africa — are “holding back investments in agroecological research,” according to a 2020 report from sustainable food system experts. For some of the top donors, “agroecology does not fit within existing investment modalities,” the researchers said. “Like many philanthropic givers, the [Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favors targeted, technological solutions.”  

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation research grants supported industrial agriculture, the report notes, while merely 3% contained elements of agroecology. Kenyan research centers also spent heavily on industrial agriculture. “In Kenya, low awareness of alternatives to the (new) Green Revolution model emerged as the greatest barrier to supporting and implementing more agroecological projects.” 

‘Zero response’ from Gates Foundation 

AFSA wrote to all of AGRA’s donors in June asking them to provide research supporting the benefits of AGRA. The African groups said they received few responses, and no credible evidence of AGRA’s benefits to farmers or the general public. African faith groups also reached out to the Gates Foundation in June, with a letter signed by 500 faith leaders asking the foundation to stop funding industrial monoculture farming. That model, they said, is “deepening the humanitarian crisis in Africa.” 

The faith groups received “zero response” from the Gates Foundation, said Francesca de Gasparis, director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). “We’re extremely disappointed to say the least,” she said. “We’re making a very important science-based point that this model of agriculture … is not serving the people of Africa.”

The Gates Foundation also did not respond to AFSA’s letter, nor did the U.S. government, which has spent $90 million of taxpayer money since 2006 funding AGRA. Neither the Gates Foundation nor USAID responded to requests for comment from U.S. Right to Know.  

Yara and other donors respond  

The Norwegian government told AFSA via email they are “currently not providing support to AGRA” and are encouraging “increased dialogue and research on options for agricultural development” in Africa. Two other AGRA donors, the IKEA Foundation and Canadian International Development Research Group, said they continue to fund aspects of AGRA’s work, and noted they are also funding efforts to expand agroecology. 

In response to queries about whether they have assessed the effectiveness of AGRA, a UK government official said, “a comprehensive evaluation of AGRA is currently underway.” He said the UK’s engagement with AGRA has “primarily focused on strengthening regional food trade and resilience within the continent” and collaborating with members of AGRA’s Africa-led Partnership for Inclusive Agriculture Transformation in Africa.

Yara International President and CEO Svein Tore Holsether told AFSA he hoped its members would consider the African Green Revolution Forum “as an opportunity for an honest exchange, rather than seeing it as a battleground for fixed positions.” But it was only after AFSA held a press conference last week, and aired their concerns in East Africa’s largest newspaper, that the Forum’s leaders reached out to the group.  

In a Sept. 6 email, AGRA president Agnes Kalibata invited AFSA’s Million Belay to participate on an “Insights Panel to discuss walking the path to change” on Thursday. Belay’s group declined the invitation to speak for “five or so minutes” near the end of the conference. “We disagree with the Green Revolution’s approach on a basic level. The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health, and undermined our seeds and culture elsewhere and in Africa. It is extremely detrimental to Africa’s future,” Belay wrote to Kalibata. 

AGRA’s work to change seed laws, biosafety standards and fertilizer rules and regulations will make Africa “far more reliant on corporate-led agriculture,” Belay said. “For us, the Green Revolution is a source of great anxiety. We are part of a burgeoning agroecology movement … That is, we believe, Africa’s future, and our mission is to focus on scientifically sound techniques which, combined with the knowledge and wisdom of African food producers, safeguard our people’s food/life sovereignty.”

Members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa 

Praise from Rockefeller Foundation 

Roy Steiner, managing director of the food initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, told U.S. Right to Know that his foundation did not receive AFSA’s June query until last week, and is working on its response. Like any program, AGRA has had some very successful initiatives and has its share of challenges,” Steiner said. “Overall we think it has been a successful program – in particular building the capacity of African scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers to make decisions for themselves.”

Steiner said he is “particularly proud of the hundreds of soil scientists and plant breeders (with significant representation of women) developing crops suited for the African environment that are building African self-reliance.” As evidence of AGRA’s progress, he pointed to AGRA’s most recent impact report, a report on its seed system program, and an impact report by an AGRA partner, the One Acre Fund.

“As AGRA moves forward,” Steiner said, “I have no doubt that it will continue to embrace more regenerative, circular agricultural approaches and we look forward to partnering with them in also adopting renewable energy into their programs.” 

Seed laws and the ‘800 pound gorilla’   

African groups were not impressed by AGRA’s reporting methods and said they have seen no evidence to change their minds that AGRA’s approach is harming Africa. AGRA’s work on seed laws that protect patented seeds and penalize seed trading “is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa,” SAFCEI’s de Gasparis and Gabriel Manyangadze wrote in an article that ran in several African news outlets last week.

“It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.”

The “corporatization of seed,” they said, undermines indigenous knowledge systems, centralizes control of production systems and disempowers small-scale farmers. “Around the globe, agribusinesses, driven by initiatives like AGRA, have been trying to convince governments and financial institutions that they hold the answer to solve the world’s hunger problems through improved production,” the faith leaders wrote.

“However, this concept has been debunked by food system research and a complete lack of success. The world does not have a food production problem, rather hunger is a result of lack of access and inequality.”

Researcher Timothy Wise, author of the 2020 Tufts report criticizing AGRA, also found fault with AGRA’s recent impact report. The report “provides some data but no convincing evidence of progress” toward AGRA’s top goals, Wise wrote in his review. He said the new report repeats the same problem as previous AGRA reports, using “vague data from undocumented sources.” 

The most objectionable thing in the AGRA reports, Wise wrote, is AGRA’s “obsessive focus” on hybrid maize seed that must be purchased every year. “In one illustrative story, Rwanda proclaims ‘self-sufficiency’ — not in food, but in hybrid maize seed production.” Wise said AGRA and the Gates Foundation are pushing seed privatization laws across Africa.

At the AFSA press conference last week, Wise referred to Bill Gates as the “800 pound gorilla” in the room of food system negotiations. “(Gates) goes where he wants and does what he wants. He is operating behind the scenes to influence policies and laws in African countries with such deep influence and no accountability,” Wise said. “It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.” 

For more information, see our fact sheet on the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa. Stacy Malkan is co-founder and managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. 

Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products, has been associated with cancer and other health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Consumer market withdrawal planned 

In July 2021, Monsanto owner Bayer AG said it would remove glyphosate-based herbicides from the U.S. consumer market by 2023 due to tens of thousands of lawsuits brought by people alleging they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma from exposure to the company’s glyphosate herbicides, such as Roundup.

Most widely used pesticide

According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide: “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.” Findings include:

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate (or 1.6 billion kilograms) since its introduction in 1974 to 2014. 
  • Worldwide 9.5 million tons (or 8.6 billion kilograms) of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world, according to an examination of data from 1994-2014.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced. 
  • Approximately 281 million pounds of glyphosate was applied to 298 million acres annually in U.S. agricultural settings, on average, from 2012 to 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most glyphosate was applied to soybean (117.4 million lbs applied annually), corn (94.9 million lbs applied annually), and cotton (20 million lbs applied annually). Many citrus fruits, including grapefruit, oranges, and lemons, and field crops such as soybeans, corn, and cotton have  high percentages of their acres treated with glyphosate. Approximately 24 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to non-agricultural sites annually, on average, from 2012 through 2016, according to EPA.  The majority of non-agricultural use is in the homeowner market. About 5 million lbs is applied annually for residential use.

Statements from scientists and health care providers 

  • Statement by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Reproductive and Environmental Health Committee: “We recommend that glyphosate exposure to populations should end with a full global phase out.” (7.2019) 
  • Essay in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: “Is it time to reassess safety standards for glyphosate based herbicides?” (6.2017)
  • Consensus statement in Environmental Health Journal: “Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement” (2.2016)
  • Monsanto owner Bayer AG maintains that glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and do not cause cancer.  “Glyphosate is one of the most studied herbicides in the world – and, like all crop protection products, it is subject to rigorous testing and oversight by regulatory authorities,” Bayer states on its website. “There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides…  that confirm that glyphosate and our glyphosate-based formulated products can be used safely and do not cause cancer.”  

Concerns with corporate studies

Regulators in Europe and the United States, Canada and elsewhere have repeatedly affirmed the corporate assertions of glyphosate safety. In coming to determinations about safety these regulators have relied in part on tests that are conducted by or for the companies that have not been published or peer reviewed.  

The corporate studies have long been kept secret, even by regulators. But in Europe, litigation by a group of European Parliament lawmakers led to the release of dozens of such studies. More than 50 of those corporate studies were analyzed in 2021 by two independent scientists – Armen Nersesyan and Siegfried Knasmueller, both from the Institute of Cancer Research, Department of Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna.

The goal of the analysis was to determine if the industry studies examined comply with current international guidelines for chemical testing. 

The resulting analysis was released July 2, 2021 and concluded that the bulk of the industry studies were outdated and did not meet current guidelines. An array of shortcomings and flaws were found in the studies, rendering most of them unreliable, according to the analysis.

In fact, of the 53 studies submitted to regulators by the companies, only two were acceptable under current internationally recognized scientific standards, said Knasmueller. See more details here. 

Cancer concerns

The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

U.S. agencies: At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In December 2016, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to review the report; members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate, and said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic. In April 2019, the EPA reaffirmed its position that glyphosate poses no risk to public health. But earlier that same month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported that there are links between glyphosate and cancer. According to the draft report from ATSDR, “numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than one for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma.” 

The EPA issued an Interim Registration Review Decision in January 2020 with updated information about its position on glyphosate, continuing to hold the position that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. 

European Union: The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry. A 2019 study found that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment report on glyphosate, which found no cancer risk, included sections of text that had been plagiarized from Monsanto studies.  In February 2020, reports surfaced that 24 scientific studies submitted to the German regulators to prove the safety of glyphosate came from a large German laboratory that has been accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

In June 2021, the European Union’s (EU) Assessment Group on Glyphosate (AGG) issued an 11,000-page draft report concluding that glyphosate is safe when used as directed and does not cause cancer. The finding is based in part on a dossier of roughly 1,500 studies submitted to European regulators by the “Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG),” a collection of companies that includes Monsanto owner Bayer AG. The companies are seeking the renewal of the EU authorization of glyphosate. Current authorization in Europe expires in December 2022. The companies say they also gave regulators a “literature review” of around 12,000 published scientific articles on glyphosate.

WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined in 2016 that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, but this finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it came to light that the chair and co-chair of the group also held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

California OEHHA: On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, a U.S. District Court denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.

Agricultural Health Study: A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but the researchers reported that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.

Recent studies linking glyphosate to cancer and other health concerns 

Cancer

Endocrine disruption, fertility and reproductive concerns 

Liver disease 

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.

Microbiome disruption

  • November 2020 paper in the Journal of Hazardous Materials reports that approximately 54 percent of species in the core of the human gut microbiome are “potentially sensitive” to glyphosate. With a “large proportion” of bacteria in the gut microbiome susceptible to glyphosate, the intake of glyphosate “may severely affect the composition of the human gut microbiome,” the authors said in their paper. 
  • A 2020 literature review of glyphosate’s effects on the gut microbiome concludes that, “glyphosate residues on food could cause dysbiosis, given that opportunistic pathogens are more resistant to glyphosate compared to commensal bacteria.” The paper continues, “Glyphosate may be a critical environmental trigger in the etiology of several disease states associated with dysbiosis, including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Glyphosate exposure may also have consequences for mental health, including anxiety and depression, through alterations in the gut microbiome.”
  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups.
  • Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Harmful impacts bees and monarch butterflies

Cancer lawsuits

More than 42,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto Company (now Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto covered up the risks. As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has had to turn over millions of pages of internal records. We are posting these Monsanto Papers as they become available. For news and tips about the ongoing legislation, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker. The first three trials ended in large awards to plaintiffs for liability and damages, with juries ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing them to develop NHL. Bayer is appealing the rulings. 

Monsanto influence in research: In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science

More information about scientific interference

Sri Lankan scientists awarded AAAS freedom award for kidney disease research

The AAAS has awarded two Sri Lankan scientists, Drs. Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake, the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for their work to “investigate a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.” The scientists have reported that glyphosate plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease in farming communities. See papers in  SpringerPlus (2015), BMC Nephrology (2015), Environmental Health (2015), International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014). The AAAS award had been suspended amidst a fierce opposition campaign by pesticide industry allies to undermine the work of the scientists. After a review, the AAAS reinstated the award

Desiccation: another source of dietary exposures 

Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.

Glyphosate in food: U.S. drags its feet on testing

Despite having annual pesticide residue testing programs for more than 30 years, the U.D. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mostly skipped testing food for glyphosate until after criticism from the Government Accountability Office in 2014. The USDA said it would start testing but then dropped the plan in 2017. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017. But the agency killed the project before it started. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. The FDA did later resume limited testing. 

One FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:

Residues of glyphosate and other pesticides in food

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned.”

In 2020, a group of FDA scientists published a research paper  examining pesticide residue data collected from 2009-2017. The scientists said this: “In this study, results for over 56,000 human food samples collected and analyzed under the FDA pesticide residue monitoring program between fiscal years (FY) 2009 to 2017 were reviewed to identify trends not apparent in annual reports. The overwhelming majority of these samples, 98.0% of domestic and 90.9% of import human foods, were compliant with federal standards. Although herbicides may be more widely used, the 10 most frequently detected residues were insecticides and fungicides. On a yearly basis, the violation rate for imported samples is 3-5 times higher than the rate for domestic samples. The import violation rate increased over time, as did the number of residues detected. Targeted sampling of foods with higher commodity-specific violation rates appears to be a major contributor to the increased violation rate. Mismatches between US tolerances and international MRLs can lead to violations; this was especially marked for rice. Overall, the majority of violations are due to residues of pesticides not authorized for use in the US (lack of tolerances). While DDT continues to persist in the environment and was found in 2.2% of domestic samples and 0.6% of imported samples, 42.3% of DDT-positive samples were below the limit of quantitation. The trends and analyses identified in this paper may help FDA plan future sampling and continue to protect the food supply.”

Monsanto owner Bayer AG maintains that residues of glyphosate in food are not harmful at levels approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  A 2021 paper written by longtime Bayer (former Monsanto) scientist John Vicini and published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety states that  “dietary exposures to glyphosate are within established safe limits.” 

For a complete history of the use of glyphosate, including regulatory action and inaction, scientific controversies, human and environmental impact data, read Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, winner of the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Jennifer Kahn’s ‘love GMOs’ NYT article is propaganda, not journalism

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By Stacy Malkan

Next week in Rome, world leaders will gather to discuss how to fix the food system amid one of the worst hunger crises in recent times. According to a new United Nations report on hunger, more than 2.37 billion people did not have adequate access to food in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in food systems that were already failing to meet the needs of so many people.

Rather than addressing systemic solutions for hunger and poverty, however, leaders of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit are ignoring human rights and pushing to expand genetic engineering and commodity crop monocultures that are deepening the crises and also not feeding the world, according to hundreds of groups that are boycotting next week’s events and organizing a counter summit.

All this context is missing from a 7,000 plus word promotional article for genetically engineered foods published this week in the New York Times Magazine. Jennifer Kahn reports that, “overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food” even though the “potential benefits have never been greater.” She concludes: We should all just learn to love GMOs.

Kahn leads the “narrative program” at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Her narrative about GMOs hews closely to agrichemical industry talking points: were it not for “fear mongering” consumers and governments insisting on transparency and safety checks, they claim, GMO technology could fulfill its “potential.” But Kahn missed decades of evidence showing that GMO crops have failed to deliver on the kinds of promises upon which she hung her story. We describe some of these examples below.

Corporations are “effectively controlling what food ecosystems emerge once a country decides to rely on biotech-gene seeds.”

Kahn also missed concerns about increasing corporate control of seeds, privatization of seed stock, and concentration of corporate power at the center of the GMO debate. U.S. and European agrichemical companies are exerting pressure on countries in the Global South to accept patented seeds, despite massive resistance in those countries. For informative reporting on that topic, see Renee Alexander and Simran Sethi’s article on how Mexico’s plan to phase out glyphosate and GMO corn imports “could reverse years of damage from U.S. trade policy.” See also Daniel Maingi’s reporting on how patent-protected biotechnologies are shaping Kenya’s food ecosystem. Corporations are “effectively controlling what food ecosystems emerge once a country decides to rely on biotech-gene seeds,” Maingi reports.

Safety checks

Kahn also missed evidence from the scientific literature about the off-target effects of CRISPR “gene editing” techniques. Plans to introduce CRISPR-engineered “hornless cattle” to Brazil were scrapped after a U.S. government researcher discovered that the cows had two antibiotic-resistance genes that weren’t supposed to be there. The company’s researchers had missed the problem in their own study. The incident highlights the importance of independent safety reviews, and provides another example of overhyped promises. The cows were the “poster animals of the gene-editing revolution,” MIT Technology Review reported, until the “major screw-up in their DNA” came to light.

Genetic engineering, including genome-editing, “has unpredictable outcomes,” says Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College in London. “You basically need to conduct a long term feeding trial in animals and see what happens …  and that’s just not going on anywhere in the world for regulatory purposes, at all.”

A more honest conversation

Kahn, a journalism professor, also relied heavily on a discredited source. She quoted at length Mark Lynas, a writer who has made many inaccurate claims about GMOs and pesticides, according to scientists and food policy experts who have written detailed critiques of his work. We have compiled the critiques of Lynas here. He is a fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations campaign funded by the Gates Foundation to convince other countries, particularly in Africa, to accept GMO seeds and foods.  In a recent Scientific American article, African food movement leaders asked Bill Gates to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.”

The public deserves a more honest conversation about GMOs – one that digs deeper than industry spin and examines critical issues of corporate power, neocolonialism and food sovereignty. “The complex nature of GMOs calls for a new conversation,” UC Berkeley scholar Maywa Montenegro wrote in 2015. “An honest discussion of genetically modified organisms must move beyond narrow concepts of human health to the wider social and environmental impacts of engineered crops.”

The need is more relevant today than ever. Instead, corporations, investors and donors pitching techno-food and industrial farming are dominating food policy negotiations. As Montenegro and her colleagues wrote last month, powerful actors have commandeered the UN Food Systems Summit “not only to promote a technology-driven approach to food systems, but also to fragment global food security governance and create institutions more amenable to the demands of agribusiness.”

GMOs: a long history of failed promises

For 30 years, agrichemical companies have hyped genetic engineering as the solution to hunger, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Again and again, the technology has failed to live up to promises. Here are some examples.

  • Genetically engineered “golden rice,” hailed as the answer to Vitamin A deficiency for 25 years, is “is nowhere near production” and “may be shelved,” reported Crispin Maslog in SciDevNet in May. Questions of environmental and nutritional safety persist.
  • Drought resistant genetically engineered maize has failed to deliver after a decade of trials in Africa. Yet Bayer and the Gates Foundation continue to push the project as a solution for hunger, reports the African Centre for Biodiversity.

“Genetic engineering, through the use of a single gene, cannot address the complexity of drought.”

African Centre for Biodiversity

For more information, see our list of critiques of GMOs in the Global South, and the Gates Foundation’s interventions in African food systems. Sign up for the USRTK newsletter for weekly updates on our investigations.

New hunger report spotlights controversial UN Food Systems Summit 

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Hunger and malnourishment increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a sobering United Nations report released Monday. The report is the first comprehensive assessment of hunger since the pandemic struck, and estimates a 25% increase in the number of severely undernourished people across the globe. While no region of the world was spared, Africa was the hardest-hit. The report estimates that more than a third of the continent’s population is undernourished.

“Nearly 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food in 2020”

Hunger and malnutrition have been worsening for over a decade, the report notes, due to conflicts, economic recessions and climate extremes. But the pandemic “continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems,” UN leaders said, warning that we are at a “critical juncture” to transform food systems. They pointed to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) this September, the COP26 on climate change in November, and December’s Nutrition for Growth Summit as crucial events that will shape how food systems develop in the years ahead. The Food Systems Pre-Summit kicks off in Rome on July 26.  

These events are mired in controversy, however. For over a year, the Food Systems Summit has sparked criticism, protests and calls for boycotts from food security experts, UN insiders and hundreds of organizations from Africa and other countries. A chief concern of the critics is the dominant role of large corporations and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, which are pushing a narrow set of approaches for profit-driven agricultural development. African groups described the approach as “business-as-usual, quick-technofix policy prescriptions of the agribusiness agendas.” What is needed instead, these groups said, is a “radical shift from fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture and corporate monopolies of food and agriculture to food sovereignty and agroecology.” 

Sharp criticism of food summit

Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, described the criticisms of the UNFSS in a concise July 14 post in her Food Politics blog. “The criticisms are so severe,” she wrote, “that the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism for relations with the UN is organizing counter events July 25-27.”

From Nestle’s post, “The Summit has been heavily criticized on the grounds that it:

  • Sets agenda themes determined by corporate entities such as The World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation.
  • Favors corporate technological solutions to food system problems.
  • Ignores agroecology, organic farming, and indigenous knowledge.
  • Excludes meaningful representation from people most affected by food system transformation.
  • Promotes corporate control of food systems.
  • Ignores the conflicted interests of its organizers.
  • Is fundamentally undemocratic.”

Many groups have written statements critiquing the UNFSS. U.S. Right to Know is posting these statements, along with reports and news coverage about the food summit controversy and the influence of the Gates Foundation. See, Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa.

High stakes battle over food system governance  

Billions of dollars in public and private investments to improve food systems are at stake through the food summit negotiations, according to Michael Fahkri, the UN rapporteur on the right to food. He and other UN insiders have harshly criticized the summit’s leaders, describing a process that is ignoring human rights, marginalizing civil society and  restructuring the UN process to shift power away from the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) into the hands of a small set of private sector actors.  

“the UN-WEF partnership is helping to establishing ‘stakeholder capitalism’ as a governance model for the entire planet.”

Civil Society Mechanism

The High Level Panel of Experts on food security and nutrition, which advises the CFS, called in 2019 for a paradigm shift away from industrial agricultural and toward agroecological approaches and policies that address social needs and inequality. Rather than follow the direction of its expert panel, however, the UN has allowed what observers describe as an agribusiness takeover of food system negotiations. The 2021 UNFSS was announced alongside a new partnership agreement between the UN and World Economic Forum, the first of its kind. UN Secretary General António Guterres then appointed Agnes Kalibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to lead the food summit.

These moves sparked outrage from hundreds of groups who called for termination of the WEF agreement and asked for Kalibata’s appointment to be revoked over concerns that AGRA “promotes a high input agricultural model is not sustainable beyond constant subsidy, which is drawn from increasingly scarce public resources.” Although Kalibata vowed the summit would consider all stakeholders’ interests, tensions continue to mount.  

In a new report published last week, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) described a problematic new science-policy framework and governance structure that is being proposed through the food summit. If adopted, the plan could marginalize the CFS, its expert panel and civil society groups even further, effectively excluding them from UN decision-making processes. IPES described the situation as “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems. This, in turn, is part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.”

IPES has also raised concerns about a restructuring process now underway to unify the CGIAR — a network of 15 agricultural research centers that have major influence over how food systems develop in the Global South — into “One CGIAR” under a centralized board. The proposed restructuring, also led by a Gates Foundation representative, “fails to equip CGIAR for the urgently needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Transforming African food systems 

Sub-Saharan Africa is ground zero for the debate over food systems transformation. More than 40 million people in the region are at risk of increased hunger and poverty as countries grapple with multiple shocks from the pandemic and climate change. Many African groups say that current market-based agricultural development models driven by external actors, including the Gates Foundation, are worsening the situation.

In March, hundreds of faith groups and people of faith from Africa asked the Gates Foundation to stop promoting “a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people.” The groups wrote their letter “out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

“The same false solutions are being recycled, with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors.”

African Centre for Biodiversity

In a May letter to summit leader Agnes Kalibata, the 50-member African Food Sovereignty Alliance called for a new paradigm of agricultural development on the continent. “Development interventions to date … reinforce indebtedness, inequalities and social exclusion,” the groups wrote. The current models “deepen dependency on destructive, short-sighted and short-lived fossil fuel and capital intensive projects, and global agricultural and forest value chains, which all contribute to creating conditions for extreme vulnerability to shocks.”

In June, the Alliance said their concerns about UNFSS were not addressed and so they will not participate. In a July 6 article in Scientific American, AFSA’s leaders also called on Bill Gates to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.” 

Documents posted earlier this year by USRTK describe how UN dialogues in Africa, held in preparation for the summit, were heavily skewed in favor of policy proposals that benefit private industry. The documents bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The group said in a statement that the summit dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands.” 

A recent historical analysis of African food systems provides further support for view that hunger problems in Africa are rooted in the interference of external forces. The researchers found that “before colonialism, farmers grew a diverse range of food crops, staggered planting for easy labour demands during harvesting, and managed risk in various related ways. But under colonial rule they were coerced into growing export commodities for which they received limited real value.” The authors concluded, “The focus must move from what the developed world dictates to what Africa needs.”

Bill Gates’ radical menu for food systems: ultra-processed foods, patents, monocrops

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By Stacy Malkan

If Bill Gates has his way, the food in our future will little resemble what’s on our plates today. Gates and his agribusiness industry partners are proposing to transform our food and how it is produced. 

To the techno-food industrialists, hunger and climate change are problems to be solved with data and engineering. The core ingredients of their revolutionary plan: genetic engineering — and patenting — of everything from seeds and food animals, to microbes in the soil, to the processes we use to make food. Local food cultures and traditional diets could fade away as food production moves indoors to labs that cultivate fake meat and ultra-processed foods. 

Gates says rich countries should shift entirely to synthetic beef. And he has the intellectual property rights to sell them. As a food that can help fix the climate, Gates touts the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty made from genetically engineered soy and textured with engineered yeast. Its manufacturer, the Gates-funded Impossible Foods, has two dozen patents and more than 100 patents pending to artificially replicate cheese, beef and chicken and permeate these products with manufactured flavors, scents and textures.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a Gates-backed start-up that makes “custom organisms,” just went public in a $17.5 billion deal. The company uses its “cell programming” technology to genetically engineer flavors and scents into commercial strains of engineered yeast and bacteria to create “natural” ingredients, including vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and flavors for ultra-processed foods.

According to its investor presentation, Ginkgo plans to create up to 20,000 engineered “cell programs” (it now has five) for food products and many other uses. Axios reports that the company plans to charge customers to use its “biological platform” like Amazon charges for its data center, and will take royalties like apps in the Apple Store. Ginkgo’s customers, the investor pitch makes clear, are not consumers or farmers, but rather the world’s largest chemical, food and pharmaceutical companies.

If techno-food products are not high on most consumers’ shopping lists, this is a menu investors can get behind. The market for genetically engineered products has the potential to reach $2-4 trillion in the next 20 years. And Bill and Melinda Gates are positioned to reap the rewards. The Gates back “a multitude of agrifood tech startups,” reports AgFunder News, either through private investment vehicles or through the Gates Foundation Trust, which funds the foundation’s charitable activities.

Gates and the tech start-ups pitch their products as solutions for our most challenging environmental and social issues. But are they really?

Doubling down on monocultures 

Gates’ “winning strategy for food and farming,” according to a recent Fortune magazine article by Shawn Tully, “is finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre … while substantially lowering carbon emissions.” Gates believes that “genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides, in the right doses – and not land-intensive organic farming – are crucial to curbing carbon emissions.”

Since 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on efforts to transform African agriculture; its flagship program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, works to transition farmers to high-input industrial agriculture and scale up markets for commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Gates says these methods can boost production and lift farmers out of poverty.

Many critics, including African faith leaders and hundreds of civil society groups around the world, say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies are failing to deliver on promises and benefitting multinational corporations over small farmers and communities in Africa. The foundation did not respond to our requests for comment.

“Gates has influenced the direction of agriculture to benefit the corporates,” said Million Belay, coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of 50 Africa-based groups. “His foundation has contributed hugely in weakening our seed, biosafety and agrochemical related regulations … it will take years to undo what they have done.”

Gates also influences how governments and academic institutions think about the future of agriculture in Africa, Belay said. “The narrative now is you need to use agrichemicals, high-yield varieties, GMOs and a host of other farm management techniques to feed yourself,” he said. “It will also take years to convince our elites the future is agroecology. As one of the most rich and powerful people on the planet, the doors of our governments are open (to Gates) while it is ajar for African citizens. He has to be called out and has to change direction.”

Leading experts in food security and nutrition are calling for a paradigm shift away from green revolution-style industrial agriculture and toward agroecology, which promotes biodiversity instead of monocultures, integrates animals to rebuild soils, and advocates for political and economic reforms to address inequities and social divisions. Diversified agroecological systems are more resilient, they say, and have a greater capacity to recover from disturbances including extreme weather events, pests and disease.  

Recent science suggests that chemical-intensive industrial agriculture is a key driver of climate change, soil erosion and the worldwide decline of insects. Corn and soy monocultures are especially problematic; they deplete the soil and rely on synthetic fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. These are problems Bill Gates is hoping technology can fix. 

A climate solution?

Fortune describes Gates’ plans to intensify corn and soy production as a “pivotal campaign in the war against global warming.” How so? Syngenta, the world’s second largest agrichemical company, is “deploying big data, gene editing, DNA analysis, and other groundbreaking technologies in pursuit of growing bumper harvests while lowering CO2.” Bayer, the leading chemical and seed firm, is making a similar pitch, and claims its new sustainability technologies will “empower 100 million smallholder farmers around the world.”

For 30 years, agrichemical companies promised GMOs could feed the poor and help small farmers, but it hasn’t yet worked out that way. Most GMO crops in the ground today are engineered to survive weed-killing chemicals or kill insects. While these crops provided short-term benefits to farmers, they provided no benefits to consumers, nor did they deliver on promises to boost yields, but they did increase herbicide use. Evidence now indicates the crops are failing as weeds and bugs evolve around the technology.

As a solution to meet the climate crisis, and enable “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture, Gates and Bayer point to experimental projects to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to plants. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes in his climate book, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” In 2017, Ginkgo Bioworks teamed up with Bayer to launch JoynBio, a microbe company that is working to create self-fertilizing plants.

This, too, is a promise Bayer has made before. As far back as 1897, Bayer promoted a product that could reportedly assimilate atmospheric nitrogen, according to Mark Finlay, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Bayer said its product could “conceivably make all agricultural lands permanently fertile,” Finlay wrote in a 2015 book about the history of agriculture. “Although early results were disappointing, many popular press writers hailed the potential of this discovery.” 

GMO 2.0: genome-editing 

Gates is an evangelist for genetically engineered foods. He predicts that “GMOs will end starvation in Africa” and GMOs can “end world hunger by 2030.” If the first generation of GMO crops failed to deliver on these hopes, Gates believes new genetic engineering methods will get us there.  

With CRISPR-Cas9 and other “genome-editing” techniques, scientists can now add or delete strands of DNA, or turn genes on or off, to produce specific traits in plants or animals — as if writing computer code. Examples include mushrooms that are “edited” to resist browning, “terminator cattle” bred to father only male offspring, or harmless strains of E Coli converted to antioxidant factories

Gene-editing techniques, and especially CRISPR, are efficient but unpredictable. Studies show the CRISPR process can create unexpected mutations including DNA damage and other off-target effectsIn 2019, a plan to release CRISPR-edited “hornless cows” to Brazil was scrapped after a U.S. government researcher discovered the cattle had two antibiotic-resistance genes that weren’t supposed to be there. The Recombinetics, Inc. cows were the “poster animals of the gene-editing revolution,” according to MIT Technology Review, until the “major screw-up in their DNA” came to light. The company’s researchers missed the extra DNA in their own studies; they reported, incorrectly, that the animals were “free of off-target effects.” 

Genetic engineering, including genome-editing, “has unpredictable outcomes,” says Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College in London. “You don’t know in advance what the consequences are of the GM transformation process … and because you don’t know, the only way to evaluate safety is generically,” Antoiniou said. “You basically need to conduct a long term feeding trial in animals and see what happens …  and that’s just not going on anywhere in the world for regulatory purposes, at all.”

Nevertheless, experiments continue on important crops and food animals. Gates Foundation has spent over $40 million on projects to genetically engineer dairy cows, with hopes of creating the “perfect” cow. Acceligen (a division of Recombinetics) is working with a Gates Foundation grant to engineer multiple traits into dairy cows to maximize productivity and durability in hot climates.

The foundation is also a leading funder of gene drive experiments that can force an engineered trait through a species. This month in the Florida Keys, the Gates Foundation-backed company Oxitec released 144,000 mosquitos engineered to eliminate females in a disease-carrying species. Proposed agricultural uses for gene drives include reversing herbicide tolerance in plants, suppressing weeds and eradicating agricultural pestsWhat could possibly go wrong? 

Systemic risk 

One of the world’s foremost experts on probability and uncertainty, Nassim Taleb, considered that question — What could go wrong with GMOs? — for a 2014 paper he wrote with colleagues at the New York University School of Engineering. The authors analyzed GMOs in the context of what they called a “non-naive” view of the Precautionary Principle. They concluded: “GMOs represent a public risk of global harm” and should be subject to “severe limits.”  

The Precautionary Principle states that if an action has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain, the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. The authors believe it “should be evoked only in extreme situations” when the potential harm is systemic and the consequences widespread and irreversible; they said GMOs “fall squarely” within this criteria. 

Among the systemic risks they cited: GMOs have the propensity to spread uncontrollably, with irreversible system-wide effects and unknown downsides. The ecological impacts are not tested empirically — and therefore not understood — before the technologies are released. The researchers noted two factors that contribute to systemic risk: the engineered genetic modifications and the monocultures in which they grow.

“Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences,” the researchers said. “Labeling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.”

Taleb summed up their conclusions in a 2015 New York Times op-ed: “The GMO experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, ‘too big too fail’ enterprise — but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.”

Ginkgo Bioworks investor pitch

Monopoly Bill 

If Gates’ plans for the food system make little sense from an equity or ecological perspective, they are logical from the point of view of an economic monopolist. 

As the former CEO and largest shareholder of Microsoft, you might think that Bill Gates is a capitalist, but that’s not exactly the case,” Megan Tompkins-Stange, a scholar of philanthropy at University of Michigan, told The Ink. “Gates’ version of capitalism would better be called monopolistic. He has consistently sought to distort free markets in order to advance his own corporation’s accumulation of wealth, power, and preeminence.”

These ideologies led to the recent controversy over Covid-19 vaccines, in which Gates’ insistence on patents may have impeded vaccine access for the world’s poor. The incident raised concerns about the powerful influence Gates wields over vital issues involving public health. As Timothy Schwab wrote in The Nation,“It is increasingly urgent to ask if Gates’s multiple roles in the pandemic — as a charity, a business, an investor, and a lobbyist — are about philanthropy and giving away money, or about taking control and exercising power — monopoly power.” 

Gates is playing all the same roles in our food system. “Gates has placed his investment bets in many of the key places in this emerging corporate narrative about what the food system needs: gene drives, geoengineering, fake meat, digital agriculture, carbon sequestration,” says Jim Thomas from the ETC Group, which investigates corporate concentration in the food industry. “Clearly he is set to benefit from these changes, plus his Foundation funding supports all this.”

Agribusiness companies are deploying digital apps on farms around the world to gather data on all aspects of farming: soil health, product inputs, weather, cropping patterns and more, including genetic information on the world’s most important seeds and livestock and knowledge indigenous farmers have developed over thousands of years. All this data to be owned and controlled by corporations, run through AI algorithms, and sold back to farmers with “prescriptions” for how to farm and which corporate products to buy, with little transparency or explanation.

The hyper-consolidated food and agriculture system has already brought numerous negative consequences to farmers and consumers. A 2019 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems documents how corporate concentration has squeezed farmer incomes, eroded their choices, narrowed the scope of innovation and escalated public health and environmental risks. The corporate drive to control Big Data, IPES said, “stands to exacerbate existing power imbalances, dependencies, and barriers to entry across the agri-food sector.”

Gates Ag One 

Impatient with the creeping progress of the techno-food revolution, the Gates Foundation last year launched a new tax-exempt nonprofit that “seeks to accelerate the development of innovations supported by the foundation’s Agricultural Development team” in two of the fastest-growing regions in the world: sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

The new “ag tech startup” will “work with partners from the public and private sector to commercialize resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits.” It is located in St. Louis, Missouri, former home of Monsanto and current hub of leading chemical and seed firms, and headed up by Joe Cornelius, the former managing director of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition at Bayer CropSciences. As if to underscore that uniformity and centralized control are core goals of the effort, the new nonprofit is called “Gates Ag One.”

Farm of the future?

In 2019, Cargill (a partner of Ginkgo Bioworks) opened a $50 million factory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The plant manufactures EverSweet, a substance that tastes like the sweetener stevia. To produce it, Cargill combines genetically engineered yeast with sugar molecules to mimic the taste of stevia. 

Consumers would not know this by reading the website or looking at the package; the company artfully describes the process as a “centuries-old technique” involving “fermentation.” It markets EverSweet as “non-artificial.”  

Cargill also pitches the product as “sustainably produced,” presumably because it moves stevia production off the land, in places like Paraguay where small farmers have been cultivating stevia for generations. But the feedstock for engineered foods made in Cargill’s new plant has to come from somewhere. Cargill would not tell us what it uses for feedstock, but the factory’s’ location in Nebraska offers a clue: it is surrounded by monocrops of GMO corn and soy.

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USRTK wins award for FOI work

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The Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists honored U.S. Right to Know today with the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards in the nonprofit organization category. Congratulations to all the James Madison FOI award winners!

The awards recognize the “people and organizations of Northern California who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment.” The awards are presented each year on Madison’s birthday, March 16, Freedom of Information Day, during National Sunshine Week. 

SPJ notes that U.S. Right to Know “filed public records requests with universities and government agencies to shed light on the influence of chemical company Monsanto in the regulatory and policy process around the country’s food system,” and that we “unearthed documents showing that Monsanto employees recruited public university professors to write policy briefs about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to support the company’s public relations goals.”

Monsanto, concerned that our FOIA requests would uncover its influence in academic circles, “created a public relations campaign to discredit U.S. Right to Know,” the SPJ wrote. But we “exposed those efforts, too.”

You can read more here about Monsanto’s campaign against USRTK for exposing its public relations work with academics.

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Dedicated to Tim Crews  

photo courtesy of Associated Press

This year’s James Madison FOI awards, the 36th annual from the Northern Chapter of the SPJ, are dedicated to Tim Crews, “the legendary editor and self-proclaimed ‘cranky country publisher’ of the Sacramento Valley Mirror,” SPJ said.

“Sporting his trademark suspenders and vigorous white beard, Crews constantly fired off public records requests to dig into the government of Willows, a town of 6,000 in the Central Valley. Crews’ mantra for the paper: ‘If we don’t report it, who will?’”

Crews was jailed for five days in 2000 for refusing to divulge anonymous sources, and he successfully overcame a shield law violation when the district attorney unlawfully subpoenaed his notes. He won a First Amendment victory in 2013, when the state Court of Appeal found he didn’t need to pay the legal fees of the school board he had sued for withholding records.

As Crews told the Poynter Institute, “If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It’s just the American way.” Crews died last November at age 77.

FOI lawsuits on origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group, has filed four lawsuits against federal agencies for violating provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The lawsuits are part of our efforts to uncover what is known about the origins of novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, leaks or mishaps at biosafety labs, and the risks of gain-of-function research that seeks to augment the infectivity or lethality of potential pandemic pathogens.

Since July, we have filed 74 state, federal, and international public records requests seeking information about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the risks of biosafety labs and gain-of-function research.

Read more about our findings so far, why we are conducting this investigation, recommended readings and documents we have obtained.

FOI lawsuits filed

(1) U.S. Food and Drug Administration: On Feb. 4, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for violating provisions of FOIA.  The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents and correspondence with or about China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, among other subjects.

(2) U.S. Department of Education: On Dec. 17, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents that the Education Department requested from the University of Texas’ Medical Branch at Galveston about its funding agreements and scientific and/or research cooperation with China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

(3) U.S. Department of State: On Nov. 30, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of State for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents and correspondence with or about China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, among other subjects. See news release.

(4) National Institutes of Health: On Nov. 5, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against National Institutes of Health (NIH) for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks correspondence with or about organizations such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology. See news release.

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. For more information about FOI lawsuits we have filed to vindicate the public’s right to know, see our FOIA litigation page.