Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

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Long History of Concerns
Key Scientific Studies on Aspartame
Industry PR Efforts
Scientific References

Key Facts About Diet Soda Chemical 

What is Aspartame?

  • Aspartame is the world’s most widely used artificial sweetener. It is also marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin and AminoSweet.
  • Aspartame is present in more than 6,000 products, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Kool Aid, Crystal Light, Tango and other artificially sweetened drinks; sugar-free Jell-O products; Trident, Dentyne and most other brands of sugar-free gum; sugar-free hard candies; low- or no-sugar sweet condiments such as ketchups and dressings; children’s medicines, vitamins and cough drops.
  • Aspartame is a synthetic chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester. When consumed, the methyl ester breaks down into methanol, which may be converted into formaldehyde.

Decades of Studies Raise Concerns about Aspartame

Since aspartame was first approved in 1974, both FDA scientists and independent scientists have raised concerns about possible health effects and shortcomings in the science submitted to the FDA by the manufacturer, G.D. Searle. (Monsanto bought Searle in 1984).

In 1987, UPI published a series of investigative articles by Gregory Gordon reporting on these concerns, including early studies linking aspartame to health problems, the poor quality of industry-funded research that led to its approval, and the revolving-door relationships between FDA officials and the food industry. Gordon’s series is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the history of aspartame/NutraSweet:

Flaws in EFSA Assessment

In a July 2019 paper in the Archives of Public Health, researchers at the University of Sussex provided a detailed analysis of the EFSA’s 2013 safety assessment of aspartame and found that the panel discounted as unreliable every one of 73 studies that indicated harm, and used far more lax criteria to accept as reliable 84% of studies that found no evidence of harm. “Given the shortcomings of EFSA’s risk assessment of aspartame, and the shortcomings of all previous official toxicological risk assessments of aspartame, it would be premature to conclude that it is acceptably safe,” the study concluded.

See EFSA’s response and a follow up by researchers Erik Paul Millstone and Elizabeth Dawson in the Archives of Public Health, Why did EFSA to reduce its ADI for aspartame or recommend its use should no longer be permitted? News coverage:

  • “World’s most popular artificial sweetener must be banned, say experts. Two food safety experts have called for the widely used artificial sweetener, aspartame, to be banned in the UK and questions why it was deemed acceptable in the first place,” New Food Magazine (11.11.2020) 
  • “‘Sales of aspartame should be suspended’: EFSA accused of bias in safety assessment,” by Katy Askew, Food Navigator (7.27.2019)

Health Effects and Key Studies  

While many studies, some of them industry sponsored, have reported no problems with aspartame, dozens of independent studies conducted over decades have linked aspartame to a long list of health problems, including:

Cancer

A large 2022 cohort study in PLOS Medicine, involving 102,865 French adults, found that artificial sweeteners — especially aspartame and acesulfame-K — were associated with increased cancer risk. Higher risks were observed for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers. “These findings provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally,” the researchers wrote.

  • “Study suggests association between consuming artificial sweeteners and increased cancer risk,” Science Daily (3.24.2022)

Three lifespan studies conducted by the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the Ramazzini Institute, provide consistent evidence of carcinogenicity in rodents exposed to the substance.

  • Aspartame “is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, even at a daily dose of … much less than the current acceptable daily intake,” according to a 2006 lifespan rat study in Environmental Health Perspectives.
  • A follow-up study in 2007 found significant dose-related increases in malignant tumors in some of the rats. “The results … confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of [aspartame’s] multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans … when life-span exposure begins during fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased,” the researchers wrote in Environmental Health Perspectives.
  • The results of a 2010 lifespan study “confirm that [aspartame] is a carcinogenic agent in multiple sites in rodents, and that this effect is induced in two species, rats (males and females) and mice (males),” the researchers reported in American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

A 2021 review of the Ramazzini Institute data validated the conclusions of the original RI studies. See, “Aspartame and cancer — new evidence of causation,” Environmental Health. The findings, “confirm that aspartame is a chemical carcinogen in rodents. They confirm the very worrisome finding that prenatal exposure to aspartame increases cancer risk in rodent offspring.”

Harvard researchers in 2012 reported a positive association between aspartame intake and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men, and for leukemia in men and women. The findings “preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect … on select cancers” but “do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation,” the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In a 2014 commentary in American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the Maltoni Center researchers wrote that the studies submitted by G. D. Searle for market approval “do not provide adequate scientific support for [aspartame’s] safety. In contrast, recent results of life-span carcinogenicity bioassays on rats and mice published in peer-reviewed journals, and a prospective epidemiological study, provide consistent evidence of [aspartame’s] carcinogenic potential. On the basis of the evidence of the potential carcinogenic effects … a re-evaluation of the current position of international regulatory agencies must be considered an urgent matter of public health.”

Brain Tumors

In 1996, researchers reported in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology on epidemiological evidence connecting the introduction of aspartame to an increase in an aggressive type of malignant brain tumors. “Compared to other environmental factors putatively linked to brain tumors, the artificial sweetener aspartame is a promising candidate to explain the recent increase in incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors … We conclude that there is need for reassessing the carcinogenic potential of aspartame.”

  • Neuroscientist Dr. John Olney, lead author of the study, told 60 minutes in 1996: “there has been a striking increase in the incidence of malignant brain tumors (in the three to five years following the approval of aspartame) … there is enough basis to suspect aspartame that it needs to be reassessed. FDA needs to reassess it, and this time around, FDA should do it right.”

Early studies on aspartame in the 1970s found evidence of brain tumors in laboratory animals, but those studies were not followed up.

Cardiovascular Disease 

A 2017 meta-analysis of research on artificial sweeteners, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found no clear evidence of weight loss benefits for artificial sweeteners in randomized clinical trials, and reported that cohort studies associate artificial sweeteners with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.” See also:

  • “Artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss and may lead to gained pounds,” by Catherine Caruso, STAT (7.17.2017)
  • “Why one cardiologist has drunk his last diet soda,” by Harlan Krumholz, Wall Street Journal (9.14.2017)
  • “This cardiologist wants his family to cut back on diet soda. Should yours, too?” by David Becker, M.D., Philly Inquirer (9.12.2017)

 A 2016 paper in Physiology & Behavior reported, “there is a striking congruence between results from animal research and a number of large-scale, long-term observational studies in humans, in finding significantly increased weight gain, adiposity, incidence of obesity, cardiometabolic risk, and even total mortality among individuals with chronic, daily exposure to low-calorie sweeteners – and these results are troubling.”

Women who consumed more than two diet drinks per day “had a higher risk of [cardiovascular disease] events … [cardiovascular disease] mortality … and overall mortality,” according to a 2014 study from the Women’s Health Initiative published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Stroke, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

People drinking diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia as those who consumed it weekly or less. This included a higher risk of ischemic stroke, where blood vessels in the brain become obstructed, and Alzheimer’s disease dementia, the most common form of dementia, reported a 2017 study in Stroke.

In the body, the methyl ester in aspartame metabolizes into methanol and then it may be converted to formaldehyde, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A two-part study published in 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease linked chronic methanol exposure to memory loss and Alzheimer’s Disease symptoms in mice and monkeys.

  • “[M]ethanol-fed mice presented with partial AD-like symptoms … These findings add to a growing body of evidence that links formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 1)
  • “[M]ethanol feeding caused long-lasting and persistent pathological changes that were related to [Alzheimer’s disease] … these findings support a growing body of evidence that links methanol and its metabolite formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 2)

Seizures

“Aspartame appears to exacerbate the amount of EEG spike wave in children with absence seizures. Further studies are needed to establish if this effect occurs at lower doses and in other seizure types,” according to a 1992 study in Neurology.

Aspartame “has seizure-promoting activity in animal models that are widely used to identify compounds affecting … seizure incidence,” according to a 1987 study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Very high aspartame doses “might also affect the likelihood of seizures in symptomless but susceptible people,” according to a 1985 study in The Lancet. The study describes three previously healthy adults who had grand mal seizures during periods when they were consuming high doses of aspartame.

Neurotoxicity, Brain Damage and Mood Disorders

Aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems including learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, wrote the researchers of a 2017 study in Nutritional Neuroscience. “Aspartame consumption needs to be approached with caution due to the possible effects on neurobehavioral health.”

“Oral aspartame significantly altered behavior, anti-oxidant status and morphology of the hippocampus in mice; also, it may probably trigger hippocampal adult neurogenesis,” reported a 2016 study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

“Previously, it has been reported that consumption of aspartame could cause neurological and behavioural disturbances in sensitive individuals. Headaches, insomnia and seizures are also some of the neurological effects that have been encountered,” according to a 2008 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “[W]e propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders … and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning.” 

“(N)eurological symptoms, including learning and memory processes, may be related to the high or toxic concentrations of the sweetener [aspartame] metabolites,” states a 2006 study in Pharmacological Research.

Aspartame “could impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice,” according to a 2000 mice study published in Toxicology Letters.

“(I)ndividuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to this artificial sweetener and its use in this population should be discouraged,” according to a 1993 study in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry.

High doses of aspartame “can generate major neurochemical changes in rats,” reported a 1984 study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Experiments indicated brain damage in infant mice following oral intake of aspartate, and showing that “aspartate [is] toxic to the infant mouse at relatively low levels of oral intake,” reported a 1970 study in Nature.

Headaches and Migraines

“Aspartame, a popular dietetic sweetener, may provoke headache in some susceptible individuals. Herein, we describe three cases of young women with migraine who reported their headaches could be provoked by chewing sugarless gum containing aspartame,” according to a 1997 paper in Headache Journal.

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo published in 1994 in Neurology, “provides evidence that, among individuals with self-reported headaches after ingestion of aspartame, a subset of this group report more headaches when tested under controlled conditions. It appears that some people are particularly susceptible to headaches caused by aspartame and may want to limit their consumption.”

A survey of 171 patients at the Montefiore Medical Center Headache Unit found that patients with migraine “reported aspartame as a precipitant three times more often than those having other types of headache … We conclude aspartame may be an important dietary trigger of headache in some people,” 1989 study in Headache Journal.

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo on the frequency and intensity of migraines “indicated that the ingestion of aspartame by migraineurs caused a significant increase in headache frequency for some subjects,” reported a 1988 study in Headache Journal.

Kidney Function Decline

Consumption of more than two servings a day of artificially sweetened soda “is associated with a 2-fold increased odds for kidney function decline in women,” according to a 2011 study in the Clinical Journal of American Society of Nephrology.

Weight Gain, Increased Appetite and Obesity Related Problems

Several studies link aspartame to weight gain, increased appetite, diabetes, metabolic derangement and obesity-related diseases. See our fact sheet: Diet Soda Chemical Tied to Weight Gain.

This science linking aspartame to weight gain and obesity-related diseases raises questions about the legality of marketing aspartame-containing products as “diet” or weight loss aids. In 2015, USRTK petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and FDA to investigate the marketing and advertising practices of “diet” products that contain a chemical linked to weight gain. See related news coverage, response from FTC, and response from FDA.

Diabetes and Metabolic Derangement

Aspartame breaks down in part into phenylalanine, which interferes with the action of an enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) previously shown to prevent metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) according to a 2017 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. In this study, mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight and developed other symptoms of metabolic syndrome than animals fed similar diets lacking aspartame. The study concludes, “IAP’s protective effects in regard to the metabolic syndrome may be inhibited by phenylalanine, a metabolite of aspartame, perhaps explaining the lack of expected weight loss and metabolic improvements associated with diet drinks.”

People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at increased risk of “excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” according to a 2013 Purdue review over 40 years published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.

In a study that followed 66,118 women over 14 years, both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with risk of Type 2 diabetes. “Strong positive trends in T2D risk were also observed across quartiles of consumption for both types of beverage … No association was observed for 100% fruit juice consumption,” reported the 2013 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Intestinal Dysbiosis, Metabolic Derangement and Obesity

A 2022 study in Frontiers in Nutrition found that maternal consumption of aspartame and stevia influences the gut microbiota of offspring. “Consumption of low-dose aspartame and stevia showed limited influence on the overall structure of cecal microbiota in dams but significantly altered cecal microbiota of their 3-week old offspring.”

Artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, according to a 2014 study in Nature. The researchers wrote, “our results link NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage … Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic [obesity] that they themselves were intended to fight.”

A 2016 study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism reported, “Aspartame intake significantly influenced the association between body mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance… consumption of aspartame is associated with greater obesity-related impairments in glucose tolerance.”

According to a 2014 rat study in PLOS ONE, “aspartame elevated fasting glucose levels and an insulin tolerance test showed aspartame to impair insulin-stimulated glucose disposal … Fecal analysis of gut bacterial composition showed aspartame to increase total bacteria…”

 Pregnancy Abnormalities: Pre Term Birth 

According to a 2010 cohort study of 59,334 Danish pregnant women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “There was an association between intake of artificially sweetened carbonated and noncarbonated soft drinks and an increased risk of preterm delivery.” The study concluded, “Daily intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks may increase the risk of preterm delivery.”

  • See also: “Downing Diet Soda Tied to Premature Birth,” by Anne Harding, Reuters (7.23.2010)

Overweight Babies

Artificially sweetened beverage consumption during pregnancy is linked to higher body mass index for babies, according to a 2016 study in JAMA Pediatrics. “To our knowledge, we provide the first human evidence that maternal consumption of artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may influence infant BMI,” the researchers wrote.

Early Menarche

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study followed 1988 girls for 10 years to examine prospective associations between consumption of caffeinated and noncaffeinated sugar- and artificially sweetened soft drinks and early menarche. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks was positively associated with risk of early menarche in a US cohort of African American and Caucasian girls,” concluded the study published in 2015 in Journal of American Clinical Nutrition.

Sperm Damage

“A significant decrease in sperm function of aspartame treated animals was observed when compared with the control and MTX control,” according to a 2017 study in the International Journal of Impotence Research. “… These findings demonstrate that aspartame metabolites could be a contributing factor for development of oxidative stress in the epididymal sperm.”

Liver Damage and Glutathione Depletion

A mouse study published in 2017 in Redox Biology reported, “Chronic administration of aspartame … caused liver injury as well as marked decreased hepatic levels of reduced glutathione, oxidized glutathione, γ-glutamylcysteine, and most metabolites of the trans-sulphuration pathway…”

A rat study published in 2017 in Nutrition Research found that, “Subchronic intake of soft drink or aspartame substantially induced hyperglycemia and hypertriacylglycerolemia… Several cytoarchitecture alterations were detected in the liver, including degeneration, infiltration, necrosis, and fibrosis, predominantly with aspartame. These data suggest that long-term intake of soft drink or aspartame-induced hepatic damage may be mediated by the induction of hyperglycemia, lipid accumulation, and oxidative stress with the involvement of adipocytokines.”

Caution for Vulnerable Populations

A 2016 literature review on artificial sweeteners in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology reported, “there is inconclusive evidence to support most of their uses and some recent studies even hint that these earlier established benefits … might not be true.” Susceptible populations such as pregnant and lactating women, children, diabetics, migraine, and epilepsy patients “should use these products with utmost caution.”

Industry PR Efforts and Front Groups 

From the start, G.D. Searle (later Monsanto and the NutraSweet Company) deployed aggressive PR tactics to market aspartame as a safe product. In October 1987, Gregory Gordon reported in UPI:

“The NutraSweet Co. also has paid up to $3 million a year for a 100-person public relations effort by the Chicago offices of Burson Marsteller, a former employee of the New York PR firm said. The employee said Burson Marsteller has hired numerous scientists and physicians, often at $1,000 a day, to defend the sweetener in media interviews and other public forums. Burson Marsteller declines to discuss such matters.”

Recent reporting based on internal industry documents reveals how beverage companies such as Coca-Cola also pay third party messengers, including doctors and scientists, to promote their products and shift the blame when science ties their products to serious health problems.

See reporting by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times, Candice Choi in the Associated Press, and findings from the USRTK investigation about sugar industry propaganda and lobbying campaigns.

News articles about soda industry PR campaigns:

Overview news stories about aspartame:

USRTK Fact Sheets

Reports on Front Groups and PR Campaigns

Scientific References

Charlotte Debras, et al. “Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk: Results from the NutriNet-Santé population-based cohort study.” PLOS Medicine. Published: March 24, 2022 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003950

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Degli Esposti D, Lambertini L, Tibaldi E, Rigano A. “First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Mar;114(3):379-85. PMID: 16507461. (article)

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Tibaldi E, Esposti DD, Lauriola M. “Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Sep;115(9):1293-7. PMID: 17805418. (article)

Soffritti M et al. “Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice.” Am J Ind Med. 2010 Dec; 53(12):1197-206. PMID: 20886530. (abstract / article)

Schernhammer ES, Bertrand KA, Birmann BM, Sampson L, Willett WC, Feskanich D., “Consumption of artificial sweetener– and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1419-28. PMID: 23097267. (abstract / article)

Soffritti M1, Padovani M, Tibaldi E, Falcioni L, Manservisi F, Belpoggi F., “The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation.” Am J Ind Med. 2014 Apr;57(4):383-97. doi: 10.1002/ajim.22296. Epub 2014 Jan 16. (abstract / article)

Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. “Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?” J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov;55(11):1115-23. PMID: 8939194. (abstract)

Azad, Meghan B., et al. “Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies.” CMAJ July 17, 2017 vol. 189 no. 28 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390 (abstract / article)

Fowler SP. Low-calorie sweetener use and energy balance: Results from experimental studies in animals, and large-scale prospective studies in humans. Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 1;164(Pt B):517-23. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.047. Epub 2016 Apr 26. (abstract)

Vyas A et al. “Diet Drink Consumption And The Risk of Cardiovascular Events: A Report from The Women’s Health Initiative.” J Gen Intern Med. 2015 Apr;30(4):462-8. doi: 10.1007/s11606-014-3098-0. Epub 2014 Dec 17. (abstract / article)

Matthew P. Pase, PhD; Jayandra J. Himali, PhD; Alexa S. Beiser, PhD; Hugo J. Aparicio, MD; Claudia L. Satizabal, PhD; Ramachandran S. Vasan, MD; Sudha Seshadri, MD; Paul F. Jacques, DSc. “Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia. A Prospective Cohort Study.” Stroke. 2017 April; STROKEAHA.116.016027 (abstract / article)

Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 1): Chronic Methanol Feeding Led to Memory Impairments and Tau Hyperphosphorylation in Mice.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 2): Lessons from Four Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) Chronically Fed Methanol.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

Camfield PR, Camfield CS, Dooley JM, Gordon K, Jollymore S, Weaver DF. “Aspartame exacerbates EEG spike-wave discharge in children with generalized absence epilepsy: a double-blind controlled study.” Neurology. 1992 May;42(5):1000-3. PMID: 1579221. (abstract)

Maher TJ, Wurtman RJ. “Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive.” Environ Health Perspect. 1987 Nov; 75:53-7. PMID: 3319565. (abstract / article)

Wurtman RJ. “Aspartame: possible effect on seizure susceptibility.” Lancet. 1985 Nov 9;2(8463):1060. PMID: 2865529. (abstract)

Choudhary AK, Lee YY. “Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?” Nutr Neurosci, 2017 Feb 15:1-11. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. (abstract)

Onaolapo AY, Onaolapo OJ, Nwoha PU. “Aspartame and the hippocampus: Revealing a bi-directional, dose/time-dependent behavioural and morphological shift in mice.” Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2017 Mar;139:76-88. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2016.12.021. Epub 2016 Dec 31. (abstract)

Humphries P, Pretorius E, Naudé H. “Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;62(4):451-62. (abstract / article)

Tsakiris S, Giannoulia-Karantana A, Simintzi I, Schulpis KH. “The effect of aspartame metabolites on human erythrocyte membrane acetylcholinesterase activity.” Pharmacol Res. 2006 Jan;53(1):1-5. PMID: 16129618. (abstract)

Park CH et al. “Glutamate and aspartate impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice.” Toxicol Lett. 2000 May 19;115(2):117-25. PMID: 10802387. (abstract)

Walton RG, Hudak R, Green-Waite R. “Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population.” J. Biol Psychiatry. 1993 Jul 1-15;34(1-2):13-7. PMID: 8373935. (abstract / article)

Yokogoshi H, Roberts CH, Caballero B, Wurtman RJ. “Effects of aspartame and glucose administration on brain and plasma levels of large neutral amino acids and brain 5-hydroxyindoles.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Jul;40(1):1-7. PMID: 6204522. (abstract)

Olney JW, Ho OL. “Brain Damage in Infant Mice Following Oral Intake of Glutamate, Aspartate or Cysteine.” Nature. 1970 Aug 8;227(5258):609-11. PMID: 5464249. (abstract)Blumenthal HJ, Vance DA. “Chewing gum headaches.” Headache. 1997 Nov-Dec; 37(10):665-6. PMID: 9439090. (abstract/article)

Van den Eeden SK, Koepsell TD, Longstreth WT Jr, van Belle G, Daling JR, McKnight B. “Aspartame ingestion and headaches: a randomized crossover trial.” Neurology. 1994 Oct;44(10):1787-93. PMID: 7936222. (abstract)

Lipton RB, Newman LC, Cohen JS, Solomon S. “Aspartame as a dietary trigger of headache.” Headache. 1989 Feb;29(2):90-2. PMID: 2708042. (abstract)

Koehler SM, Glaros A. “The effect of aspartame on migraine headache.” Headache. 1988 Feb;28(1):10-4. PMID: 3277925. (abstract)

Julie Lin and Gary C. Curhan. “Associations of Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Soda with Albuminuria and Kidney Function Decline in Women.” Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan; 6(1): 160–166. (abstract / article)

Gul SS, Hamilton AR, Munoz AR, Phupitakphol T, Liu W, Hyoju SK, Economopoulos KP, Morrison S, Hu D, Zhang W, Gharedaghi MH, Huo H, Hamarneh SR, Hodin RA. “Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Jan;42(1):77-83. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346. Epub 2016 Nov 18. (abstract / article)

Susan E. Swithers, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep; 24(9): 431–441. (article)

Guy Fagherazzi, A Vilier, D Saes Sartorelli, M Lajous, B Balkau, F Clavel-Chapelon. “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013, Jan 30; doi: 10.3945/ ajcn.112.050997 ajcn.050997. (abstract/article)

Weilan Wang et al., “A Metagenomics Investigation of Intergenerational Effects of Non-nutritive Sweeteners on Gut Microbiome.” Front. Nutr., 14 January 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.795848

Suez J et al. “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota.” Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521). PMID: 25231862. (abstract / article)

Kuk JL, Brown RE. “Aspartame intake is associated with greater glucose intolerance in individuals with obesity.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):795-8. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0675. Epub 2016 May 24. (abstract)

Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109841. (article)

Halldorsson TI, Strøm M, Petersen SB, Olsen SF. “Intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and risk of preterm delivery: a prospective cohort study in 59,334 Danish pregnant women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;92(3):626-33. PMID: 20592133. (abstract / article)

Meghan B. Azad, PhD; Atul K. Sharma, MSc, MD; Russell J. de Souza, RD, ScD; et al. “Association Between Artificially Sweetened Beverage Consumption During Pregnancy and Infant Body Mass Index.” JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(7):662-670. (abstract)

Mueller NT, Jacobs DR Jr, MacLehose RF, Demerath EW, Kelly SP, Dreyfus JG, Pereira MA. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with risk of early menarche.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;102(3):648-54. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100958. Epub 2015 Jul 15. (abstract)

Ashok I, Poornima PS, Wankhar D, Ravindran R, Sheeladevi R. “Oxidative stress evoked damages on rat sperm and attenuated antioxidant status on consumption of aspartame.” Int J Impot Res. 2017 Apr 27. doi: 10.1038/ijir.2017.17. (abstract / article)

Finamor I, Pérez S, Bressan CA, Brenner CE, Rius-Pérez S, Brittes PC, Cheiran G, Rocha MI, da Veiga M, Sastre J, Pavanato MA., “Chronic aspartame intake causes changes in the trans-sulphuration pathway, glutathione depletion and liver damage in mice.” Redox Biol. 2017 Apr;11:701-707. doi: 10.1016/j.redox.2017.01.019. Epub 2017 Feb 1. (abstract/article)

Lebda MA, Tohamy HG, El-Sayed YS. “Long-term soft drink and aspartame intake induces hepatic damage via dysregulation of adipocytokines and alteration of the lipid profile and antioxidant status.” Nutr Res. 2017 Apr 19. pii: S0271-5317(17)30096-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2017.04.002. [Epub ahead of print] (abstract)

Sharma A, Amarnath S, Thulasimani M, Ramaswamy S. “Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?” Indian J Pharmacol 2016;48:237-40 (article)

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a Food Industry Lobby Group

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The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with 17 affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.

Recent news

  • March 2022 study in Cambridge University Press found that 95% of the U.S. 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had conflicting interests with the food, and/or pharmaceutical industries. Particular actors, including Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills, Dannon, and the ILSI had connections with multiple members. “Trustworthy dietary guidelines result from a transparent, objective, and science-based, process,” the researchers wrote. The “significant and widespread” COI on the committee “prevent the DGA from achieving the recommended standard for transparency without mechanisms in place to make this information publicly available.”

  • February 2022 study in Globalization and Health co-authored by U.S. Right to Know shows that food and chemical industry players view the International Food Information Council (IFIC) as “being central to promoting industry-favorable content in defense of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…” The study describes IFIC as “a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public. See also, IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News.

  • April 2021 study in Globalization and Health documents how ILSI plays a key role in helping the food industry shape scientific principles by promoting the acceptance of public-private partnerships and permissiveness about conflicts of interest. 

  • Coca-Cola has severed its longtime ties with ILSI. The move is “a blow to the powerful food organization known for its pro-sugar research and policies,” Bloomberg reported in January 2021.  
  • ILSI helped Coca-Cola Company shape obesity policy in China, according to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy,” the paper concludes.

  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know add more evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition based on the documents reveal “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.” See coverage in The BMJ, Food and drink industry sought to influence scientists and academics, emails show  (5.22.20)

  • Corporate Accountability’s April 2020 report examines how food and beverage corporations have leveraged ILSI to infiltrate the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and cripple progress on nutrition policy around the globe. See coverage in The BMJ, Food and soft drink industry has too much influence over US dietary guidelines, report says (4.24.20) 

  • New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reveals that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” (9.16.19) The Times cited a June study in Globalization and Health co-authored by Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know reporting that ILSI operates as a lobby arm for its food and pesticide industry funders.

  • The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies claiming red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods in an ILSI-funded study to claim sugar is not a problem. (10.4.19)

  • Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, ILSI: true colors revealed (10.3.19)

ILSI ties to Coca-Cola 

ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coke from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI. Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI from 2009-2011. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.  

Corporate funding 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies. ILSI acknowledges receiving funding from industry but does not publicly disclose who donates or how much they contribute. Our research reveals:

  • Corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. This included $528,500 from CropLife International, a $500,000 contribution from Monsanto and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.
  • A draft 2013 ILSI tax return shows ILSI received $337,000 from Coca-Cola and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrisciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience and BASF.
  • A draft 2016 ILSI North America tax return shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo, contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez, and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Uniliver and Campbell Soup.  

Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy to promote industry views 

A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition adds evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. The study, based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, reveals how ILSI promotes the interests of the food and agrichemical industries, including ILSI’s role in defending controversial food ingredients and suppressing views that are unfavorable to industry; that corporations such as Coca-Cola can earmark contributions to ILSI for specific programs; and, how ILSI uses academics for their authority but allows industry hidden influence in their publications.

The study also reveals new details about which companies fund ILSI and its branches, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions documented from leading junk food, soda and chemical companies.

A June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health provides several examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws.  

The researchers concluded: “ILSI seeks to influence individuals, positions, and policy, both nationally and internationally, and its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally. Our analysis of ILSI serves as a caution to those involved in global health governance to be wary of putatively independent research groups, and to practice due diligence before relying upon their funded studies and/or engaging in relationship with such groups.”   

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

Professor Geenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west,” the New York Times reported.  

Additional academic research from U.S. Right to Know about ILSI 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has over 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.  

ILSI sugar study “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”

Public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal in 2016 that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.  

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: “This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” Nestle said. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.” 

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart policy 

A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report. Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See: 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI

ILSI leaders helped defend glyphosate as chairs of key panel 

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was also chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group. See: 

ILSI’s cozy ties at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see: 

ILSI influence on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

report by the nonprofit group Corporate Accountability documents how ILSI has major influence on U.S. dietary guidelines via its infiltration of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  The report examines the pervasive political interference of food and beverage transnationals like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, and how these corporations have leveraged the International Life Sciences Institute to cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.

ILSI influence in India 

The New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in its article titled, “A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.”

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola – downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. 

Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.  

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim. But accusations of industry ties may taint European body’s reputation, Nature (2010)

Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17) 

Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”

Gates Foundation agriculture project in Africa flunks review

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The first major evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s controversial efforts to expand capital-intensive, high-input agriculture in Africa found that the 15-year-effort has failed to achieve its goals of improving food security.

The Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aimed to transform agriculture in Africa by increasing incomes and food security for millions of smallholder farmers. But an independent evaluation by the consulting firm Mathematica provides no evidence of progress toward these goals.

The evaluation posted Feb. 28 was funded by the Gates Foundation on behalf of AGRA’s lead donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation and government agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Germany. It is the only macro-level performance review of AGRA released to the public since the effort launched in 2006. 

Still, the review of AGRA’s core strategy, the Partnership Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), is far from comprehensive, covering just five years, leaving out many of AGRA’s target countries, and offering few details on key metrics, including specifics on yields and incomes. Although AGRA operates in 11 countries, the analysis reports only on select countries for each outcome it measured.

Among the details that were reported: Yields for maize (the most heavily subsidized crop) increased in just three countries, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, but not in Tanzania, Burkina Faso or Kenya, as a result of PIATA. Only one country (Burkina Faso) shows evidence of increased farmer incomes related to PIATA. Few details are provided about the size or scope of these impacts.

The “mixed results” for farmer outcomes, the report notes, “likely reflect remaining farmer constraints in access to affordable inputs and output markets, as well as low per-farmer investment levels. These findings suggest that AGRA did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders, despite reaching over 10 million smallholders.” 

“an expected outcome”

In a formal published response, AGRA said that finding is “an expected outcome and a true reflection of the realities that farmers, AGRA, and other institutions that support farmers today live with daily.”

The admission is a major departure from AGRA’s earlier rhetoric; the group has raised over $1 billion – two-thirds of that from the Gates Foundation – on promises it would “double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020.” 

Those goals were quietly removed from the AGRA website in June 2020 after an independent assessment by Tufts University found little evidence of progress. AGRA’s new headline goals make no mention of specific improvements, promising simply to “improve” incomes and food security for African farmers. But even that outcome is not supported by the evidence provided in the Mathematica evaluation. 

Where’s the data for AGRA? 

Evaluators also noted many deficiencies in AGRA’s reporting and monitoring data, which they characterized as “not suited for rigorous impact analysis.” The lack of robust data is surprising for a program heralded by the Gates Foundation, which calls for “data driven” and “evidence based” philanthropy. 

Bill Gates famously bet, for example, that big data could “save American schools.” But a seven-year, over $500 million educational-reform effort designed and funded in part by the Gates Foundation, “did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation,” particularly for low-income and minority students, and “failed to produce the desired dramatic improvement in outcomes across all years,” according to a 2016 evaluation by the nonprofit policy think tank RAND. 

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to fix U.S. education and African agriculture share some similarities: audacious promises to transform systems, followed by heaps of tax-exempt charity money and direct taxpayer spending, ending with disappointing results.

But for AGRA, the Gates Foundation has kept its evaluation data mostly out of the public eye until now. The foundation has ignored multiple requests from U.S. Right to Know to release a 2016 evaluation of AGRA conducted by consulting firm DAI Associates. AGRA also would not release the document, claiming that only the Gates Foundation could authorize its release. U.S. Right to Know was unable to obtain the evaluation via public records requests, even though the U.S. Agency for International Development is a donor to AGRA. 

In the wake of these public records requests, AGRA did release what is described as a “mid-term evaluation” of PIATA’s strategy process. Dated January 2020 (and posted to the AGRA website in December), the report focuses on AGRA’s internal processes, with few details about its performance. Like the Mathematica evaluation, it includes multiple references to AGRA’s poor monitoring processes and evaluation data. 

It also includes a summary of the unreleased DAI evaluation and the results do not appear favorable: the summary notes a “lack of clarity surrounding AGRA’s core value proposition and business model” due to many factors that were “aggravated by fatigue among staff caused by too frequent, top-down strategy refreshes.” It also calls out “ambiguity over AGRA’s identity, including its perception as an African institution.”

AGRA is now in a regrouping phase. Its most recent five-year strategy plan ended in 2021. The group has not yet publicly released its new strategy plans but expects to do so later this year, according to an AGRA spokesperson. He said AGRA is now in consultation with countries and partners to develop a five year strategic plan for 2023-2027.  

Backing up AGRA’s critics 

Based in Kenya and registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit in the US, AGRA encourages African countries to pass business-friendly policies and scale up markets for patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other industrial inputs they say are necessary to boost food production. 

“In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled.”

To that end AGRA has spent close to $1 billion on efforts to improve market conditions for Africa’s farmers, while African governments spent billions more subsidizing the purchase of expensive “green revolution” technologies, including chemical fertilizer and commercial seeds that are supposed to boost yields.  

These strategies continue to impoverish smallholder farmers,” said Anne Maina, national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA), in response to the evaluation. “It is time to stop promoting green revolution technologies that do not improve our soils … In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled,” Maina said. That problem may get worse due to rising input costs. 

“The time is now to increase funding to support the promotion of biofertilizers and biopesticides that not only build our soils but are safe and affordable for current and future generations,” Maina said.

BIBA co-authored a 2020 report that critiques AGRA’s programs as “false promises” that are not helping African farmers. AGRA described that report as a  “flawed analysis” but did not provide data to refute the critiques. AGRA also did not provide a detailed response to follow-up questions from African groups and requests for more data.

The new Mathematica evaluation does not provide that data either, said Timothy Wise, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In an analysis posted last week, Wise said the new evaluation supports his 2020 Tufts paper that found slow yield growth and no evidence of increased farmer incomes in AGRA’s target countries, while hunger increased 31%. “AGRA’s donors should reconsider their support for such an unsuccessful and unaccountable initiative,” Wise wrote. “They should shift their funding to agroecology and other low-cost, low-input systems” which “have shown far better results.” 

Million Belay, coordinator of the broad-based Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), said the Mathematica evaluation “largely confirms AFSA’s concerns about AGRA.” The alliance of African groups wrote to the Gates Foundation and other AGRA donors last June asking them to stop funding AGRA and shift their political and financial support to more sustainable and equitable agroecological approaches.

Also last June, 500 faith leaders led by the Southern African Faith Communities and Environment Institute (SAFECEI) signed an open letter expressing “grave concern that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

The Gates Foundation has not met with the groups, nor has it provided any public response to these concerns. Nevertheless, the foundation’s disclosures show that it donated another $40 million to AGRA in December 2021. The foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

AGRA President Agnes Kalibata defended AGRA’s approach in an article in the East African, and she noted progress the group has made. Criticisms that AGRA promotes a broken green revolution industrial model, Kalibata said, are “based on an inadequate appreciation of our model. AGRA’s model is based on an approach that African farmers can change their lives with improved food security and incomes if they had better access to finance, inputs, knowledge, and markets.”

German government considers pulling funding over pesticide use 

At least one of AGRA’s major donors has considered quitting its partnership with AGRA over concerns that an AGRA-connected project in Ghana allows farmers to use pesticides that are banned in the European Union for health concerns. 

In February, Der Spiegel reported that German Development Minister Svenja Schulze is considering exiting the government’s partnership with AGRA over concerns about the use of hazardous pesticides — specifically propanil-based pesticides and permethrin that are used in the Ghana project. Germany has so far contributed 25 million Euros to AGRA, the paper reported. 

Schulze, a member of the Social Democratic Party, was appointed German Development Minister in December 2021. Her predecessor had defended the use of the controversial pesticides in Africa, according to Der Spiegel. Schulze told the news outlet that she will review Germany’s partnership with AGRA and also work with the Ministry of Agriculture to prepare an export ban on pesticides banned in the EU. “The goal,” she said, “must be a socio-ecological transformation of agriculture.” 

Civil society organizations in Germany and Africa said the German government “is violating its own compulsory pesticide-use standards in development projects in Ghana” by allowing propanil-based pesticides and permethrin, which are banned for use on food crops in Europe. Both pesticides are toxic on contact and require strict safety protocols and conditions that “are not even remotely being met” in the AGRA projects in Ghana, according to Jan Urhan, program director for Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a left-wing political foundation in Germany.

In Urhan’s view, the poor results of the independent AGRA evaluation, along with the German government’s public pronouncements of concern, “are the beginning of the end of AGRA.” He called the Mathematica evaluation “a damning verdict” and said it “confirms the studies done by civil society in the past years: AGRA has failed.” He said donor governments and African countries involved “must now withdraw from AGRA.”

In an email to U.S. Right to Know, an AGRA spokesperson responded to the concerns raised in the Der Spiegel article: “AGRA works under government national priorities and regulations – in this case under the Government of Ghana. Only pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana are allowed for use by our project partners. It is worth noting that AGRA does not buy, distribute or promote Permethrin or Propanil.” He also referenced AGRA’s Environmental and Social Management System that all AGRA grantees comply with. 

“AGRA greatly values the partnership with the Government of Germany as we work with the Government of Ghana, who we both support in this programme,” the spokesperson said. 

USAID remains steadfast in its support 

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will continue to support AGRA in spite of the critical evaluation, according to a spokesperson there. “USAID reviewed the findings and recommendations and is satisfied with the independence and rigor of the [Mathematica] evaluation. We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes,” the spokesperson said.

“USAID remains steadfast in its commitment to people across the African continent and around the world to address the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Through the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, USAID supports partners – AGRA – to increase incomes and boost nutrition for smallholder farmers, their families, and communities in the areas where we work.”

U.S. taxpayers contributed at least $90 million to AGRA between 2006 and 2020. USAID did not respond to multiple requests for information about whether the U.S. agency has provided or committed more funds to AGRA since 2020.  

AGRA’s success with lobbying and corporate partnerships 

The Mathematica evaluation was more positive about some aspects of AGRA’s work, praising its successes lobbying African governments for an “improved policy environment for private sector investment in agriculture,” as well as its progress building partnerships with the corporate sector. 

It notes, for example, that over 700 village based advisors “are using digital platforms to register farmers and broadcast information on weather, seeds, and fertilizer to over 30,000 farmers through AGRA’s partnership with Microsoft.” However, the report notes that these programs may not be sustainable as there is no clear path to scalability or profitability, and that African governments are unlikely to take on the costs. 

On the policy front, the evaluation noted AGRA’s participation in 72 agricultural policy reforms across 11 target African countries in the areas of seed, fertilizer and market access. Among its biggest successes was “increasing supply of certified seed through direct support to seed companies” and market linkages, most notably in Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the report. 

Laws that protect intellectual property rights for “certified” seeds, while creating penalties for open-source seed sharing – often referred to as “plant protection” or “seed harmonization laws” – are among the most controversial policies AGRA promotes. An AGRA spokesperson said, “AGRA supports efforts to harmonize seed laws /regulations to maximize choice and opportunity for farmers we support, as well as the small and medium-size enterprises that support them.”

However, seed privatization is a major concern among African groups that have critiqued AGRA. “Protecting corporate entities’ certified varieties while criminalizing trade of non-certified seed is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa, where 80 percent of non-certified seed and food come from millions of smallholder farmers who recycle, and exchange seeds each year,” wrote Africa-based faith leaders Gabriel Manyangadze and Francesca de Gasparis in Business Daily last year. 

“Not only does the corporatization of seed undermine existing indigenous knowledge systems regarding seed diversity and multi-cropping,” they wrote, “but more insidiously, it centralizes control of production systems, disempowering and reducing the resilience of small-scale farmers who rely on informal trade, historical and cultural knowledge in addition to their unique understanding of their ecological landscapes.”

Stopping seed privatization laws is a major focus of food sovereignty groups in Africa and around the world. Last week, the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice declared the Law for Protection of Plant Varieties unconstitutional. The legislation, which made it illegal to save, give away or exchange seeds, was dubbed by critics “The Monsanto Law.” 

Million Belay of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described in an op ed for Al Jazeera why many food producers in Africa oppose AGRA’s push to expand the use of expensive inputs. “The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health and undermined our seeds and culture,” Belay wrote. “We object to the flurry of initiatives to amend our seed laws, biosafety standards, and institutionalize fertilizer rules and regulations that seek to entrench Africa’s over reliance on corporate agriculture.”

Following the Mathematica evaluation, African civil society and faith leaders said they will continue to press governments and private philanthropies to hear their concerns and stop supporting AGRA.

Stacy Malkan is managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. 

Confronting potential food industry ‘front groups’: IFIC case study

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New study in Globalization and Health 

See also the U.S.Right to Know fact sheet on the International Food Information Council

2,4-D: Concerns about Cancer and Other Serious Illnesses

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Since its introduction in the 1940s, the herbicide 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) has been widely used to control weeds in agriculture, forestry, and urban and residential settings.

According to documents obtained by public records requests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forecast sharp increases in the levels of 2,4-D in American food after regulators approved new genetically modified (GMO) crops that tolerate being sprayed directly with 2,4-D. The agency said it expected use of 2,4-D “to triple” after the introduction of these GMO crops. The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also approved Dow Agroscience’s “Enlist Duo,” a mixture of glyphosate and 2,4-D for use on GMO corn, cotton and soybean seeds that Dow developed to tolerate the chemicals. 

FDA said 2,4-D use is “expected to triple” due to GMO crops 

Both glyphosate and 2,4-D have been linked to cancer and other health problems, and there is little known about the synergistic toxicity of these chemicals.

Chemical manufacturers are now seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for five-trait GMO maize seeds that are genetically engineered to tolerate five herbicides: 2,4-D, dicamba, glyphosate, glufosinate and quizaofop.

See our fact sheets on glyphosate and dicamba

What is 2,4-D?

Scientific studies link 2,4-D to certain types of cancer, birth defects, immunosuppression and other health impacts in highly exposed populations including farmers, farmworkers and farming communities. More than 1,000 products containing 2,4-D are sold in the United States. The herbicide, which will kill many broadleaf weeds but not most grasses, comes in many forms, including liquids, dusts, and granules. Use of 2,4-D is so widespread that residues have been detected in surface and groundwater sources.

2,4-D was one of two active ingredients in the “Agent Orange” herbicide formulation used during the Vietnam War, though adverse health effects associated with Agent Orange have been blamed on a separate ingredient – 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, and its contaminant, dioxin.

In 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said a review of scientific literature showed that 2,4-D is “possibly” carcinogenic to humans. IARC said that although there is “inadequate evidence in humans and limited evidence in experimental animals” of ties between 2,4-D and cancer, it based the classification on epidemiological studies that provided “strong evidence that 2,4-D induces oxidative stress … and moderate evidence that 2,4-D causes immunosuppression.”

The IARC classification contradicted a 2007 assessment by the U.S. EPA, which said scientific data did not support a link between human cancer and 2,4-D exposure. The EPA stated that 2,4-D “generally has low toxicity for humans.” However, many experts point out that U.S. regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances for understanding chemical risk. 

Is 2,4-D in our food? 

The EPA allows 2,4-D to be used in the production of fruits and vegetables and is sprayed directly on some crops used for human and animal food. The U.S. FDA has found residues of 2,4-D in food samples but asserts the pesticide traces people consume pose no health dangers. Documents obtained from the FDA through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests show the government forecast sharp increases in the levels of 2,4-D in American food after regulators approved new 2,4-D tolerant crops developed by Dow AgroSciences that tolerate being sprayed directly with the herbicide. 

In March of 2017, the Center for Food Safety and five other organizations sued the EPA over its approval of Dow’s new 2,4-D herbicide, designed to be used with 2,4-D-tolerant crops. The groups alleged the regulatory agency violated its duties under the Pesticide Act and violated its duties to protect endangered species. The group said the agency’s approval of Dow’s “Enlist Duo” product, which combines glyphosate and 2,4-D, was “part of a disturbing, industry-wide trend” in which crops are genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed with multiple pesticides. “While these GE crop systems initially provide a quick-fix way to kill weeds, the intensive spraying triggers rapid evolution of weed resistance to the chemicals. Just as overuse of antibiotics breeds resistant bugs and more antibiotics to kill them, so these GE crop systems drive a toxic spiral of increasing weed resistance and pesticide use.”   

In July 2020 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the claims and ruled that Dow’s Enlist Duo could stay on the market. The court agreed with the petitioners that the EPA did not properly assess harm to the monarch butterflies associated with increased use of 2,4-D. But the court merely instructed the agency to review the risks to monarch butterflies.  

What does science say about health impacts linked to 2,4-D?

Scientific studies link 2,4-D to the following health concerns: 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of associations between 2,4-D and NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] found “new evidence for an association between NHL and exposure to the herbicide 2,4-D… Overall, in our analysis focused on the highest exposure group from each study, we identified a statistically significant association between 2,4-D exposure and increased RRs [relative risks] of NHL.” 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma: a meta-analysis accounting for exposure levels. Annals of Epidemiology, 2017. 

Systematic review and meta-analyses of nearly three decades of epidemiological research on the relationship between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides finds that “Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma was positively associated with phenoxy herbicide exposure.” Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Occupational Exposure to Agricultural Pesticide Chemical Groups and Active Ingredients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2014.

A population-based case-control study in Italy found that “the positive association found between phenoxy herbicides exposures and NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma], when we restricted the analysis to the subjects who never used personal protective equipment, confirms previously reported associations…” Cancer and Pesticides: An Overview and Some Results of the Italian Multicenter Case–Control Study on Hematolymphopoietic Malignancies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2006.

A population-based, case-control study in Nebraska found a “50% excess of NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] associated with mixing or applying 2,4-D. The risk for NHL increased with the average frequency of use to more than threefold among those exposed more than 20 days per year.” A case-control study of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the herbicide 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) in eastern Nebraska. Epidemiology, 1990.

Birth defects 

Study of rates of adverse birth outcomes in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota found that “in rural, agricultural counties where wheat acreage occupies a larger percentage of the land and where use of chlorophenoxy herbicides is higher, anomalies of the circulatory/respiratory and musculoskeletal/integumentary system significantly increased.” Birth Malformations and Other Adverse Perinatal Outcomes in Four U.S. Wheat-Producing States. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003.

Study of offspring of pesticide appliers in Minnesota found that “the rate of birth defects increased in…offspring born to the general population residing in high-use chlorophenoxy herbicide/fungicide regions…” Pesticide appliers, biocides, and birth defects in rural Minnesota. Environmental Health Perspectives, 1996.

Breast cancer

Case-control study of breast cancer in California farm workers found “suggestive increases” in breast cancer risk “were seen for a phenoxyacetic acid herbicide, 2,4-D, an organophosphate, malathion, and an organochlorine insecticide, chlordane, ” and that the “risk associated with chemical use was stronger in younger women, those with early-onset breast cancer, and those diagnosed earlier.” Breast Cancer Risk in Hispanic Agricultural Workers in California. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 2013. 

Gastric cancer

Nested case-control study of gastric cancer found that “Working in areas with high use of the phenoxyacetic acid herbicide 2,4-D was associated with gastric cancer…” Agricultural exposures and gastric cancer risk in Hispanic farm workers in California. Environmental Research, 2007. 

Parkinson’s disease 

Case-control study investigating the risk of parkinsonism in occupations found “Three individual compounds, the organochlorine 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the herbicide paraquat, and the insecticide and acaricide permethrin, were associated with more than a 3-fold increased risk of disease”. Occupation and Risk of Parkinsonism: A Multicenter Case-Control Study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2009.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 

Large nationwide study published in the journal NeuroToxicology (December 2021) reports that “several neurotoxic pesticide exposures estimated using residential location were associated with statistically significant increased risk of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). These include the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate, and the insecticides carbaryl and chlorpyrifos.” ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. Pesticides applied to crops and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis risk in the U.S. NeuroToxicology, December, 2021.

Endocrine disruption/thyroid

Study of the association between pesticide use and thyroid diseases found “increased odds of hypothyroidism with ever-use of the herbicides 2,4-D, 2,4,5-T, 2,4,5-TP, alachlor, dicamba, and petroleum oil.Hypothyroidism and pesticide use among male private pesticide applicators in the agricultural health study. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2013.

Sperm disorders/decreased male fertility

Study of the reproductive function of 32 male farmers exposed to 2,4-D found that “2,4-D can affect spermatogenesis in occupationally exposed farmers. The decrease of fertility in exposed subjects results from asthenospermia, necrospermia and teratospermia, frequently associated. The most important pathological aspects of the spermatogenesis of the exposed subjects are increase and permanence over time of abnormal spermatozoa.” Study of reproductive function in persons occupationally exposed to 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D)Mutation Research Letters, 1991. 

Lipid/glucose metabolism/heart risk

Study on the toxicity of chlorophenoxy herbicides using linear regression found that “exposure to 2,4-D was associated with changes in biomarkers that, based on the published literature, have been linked to risk factors for acute myocardial infarction and type-2 diabetes.” Perturbation of lipids and glucose metabolism associated with previous 2,4-D exposure: a cross-sectional study of NHANES III data, 1988-1994Environmental Health, 2010.

Immunosuppression

Study of blood samples from farmers found that “exposure to commercial 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 4-chloro-2-methylphenoxyacetic acid (MCPA) formulations may exert short term immunosuppressive effects.” Immunological changes among farmers exposed to phenoxy herbicides: preliminary observations. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 1996. 

Microbiome perturbations in mice 

Study of sub-chronic low-dose 2,4-D exposure in a mouse model “revealed a distinct gut microbial community with profound changes in diverse microbial pathways including urea degradation, amino acid and carbohydrate metabolism in 2,4-D-treated mice. Moreover, the metabolomics results revealed that the metabolic profiles in treatment group were differentiated from control group in both fecal and plasma samples. Toxic effects on the host of 2,4-D at an occupationally relevant dose were observed indicated by decreased acylcarnitine levels in plasma. These findings indicated that 2,4-D can cause toxicity and substantially impact the gut microbiome in mice at occupationally relevant doses”. Subchronic low-dose 2,4-D exposure changed plasma acylcarnitine levels and induced gut microbiome perturbations in mice. Scientific Reports, 2019.

Where can I find more information about 2,4-D? 

Fact sheets about 2,4-D

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Toxicological Profile for 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid (2,4-D), July 2020.

Natural Resources Defense Council: 2,4-D: The Most Dangerous Pesticide You’ve Never Heard Of.

Beyond Pesticides: Chemical Watch Factsheet 2,4-D

Pesticide Action Network: The risks of the herbicide 2,4-D

Civil Eats: Five Things to Know About 2,4-D, the “Possibly Cancer-Causing Herbicide.”

Journalism and opinion

EPA tosses aside safety data, says Dow pesticide for GMOs won’t harm people, by Patricia Callahan, Chicago Tribune. (12.8.15) “For use on its new genetically engineered corn and soybeans, Dow Chemical Co. is reviving 2,4-D, a World War II-era chemical linked to cancer and other health problems. If these crops are widely adopted, the government’s maximum-exposure projections show that U.S. children ages 1 to 12 could consume levels of 2,4-D that the World Health Organization, Russia, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Brazil and China consider unsafe.” 

Congress questions EPA about Dow’s Enlist Duo pesticide risks, by Patricia Callahan, Chicago Tribune. (2.15.16) “When the EPA approved Enlist Duo in 2014, the agency tossed aside evidence of kidney lesions in lab rats that Dow’s own scientists said were caused by 2,4-D, clearing the way for children to be exposed to levels considered for decades to be unsafe, the Tribune investigation found.”

Reps. Blumenauer, DeFazio, Other Members Call on EPA to Reevaluate Risks of Powerful Herbicide Before Reapproved, Press Release. (2.12.16) “We were concerned to learn that … EPA dismissed a key study linking 2,4-D to kidney abnormalities based on one scientist’s analysis, and in doing so, effectively gave the green light for 41 times more of the chemical to enter the America diet than was previously allowed.”

Agent Orange in Your Backyard: The Harmful Pesticide 2,4-D, by Gina Solomon, The Atlantic. (2.24.12). “Newer science shows that it’s not just a cancer problem, but that this pesticide interferes with several essential hormones, thereby increasing the risks of birth defects and neurologic damage in children. Studies in Midwest wheat-growing areas (where 2,4-D is heavily used) have shown increased rates of certain birth defects, especially in male children, and lower sperm counts in adults.”

Last year it was dicamba, this year it’s 2,4-D, by Johnathan Hettinger, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. (3.29.19) “A volatile weed killer linked to cancer and endocrine issues will likely be sprayed on millions more acres of soybeans and cotton across the Midwest and South starting this year. In January, China approved imports of a new genetically modified soybean variety — Enlist E3 soybeans jointly made by Corteva Agriscience, a division of DowDupont and seed company MS Technologies — that can withstand the herbicide 2,4-D.”

What to know before you spray your lawn with pesticides, by Amanda Mascarelli, The Washington Post. (7.7.14) “Researchers are learning a great deal about how vulnerable children’s brains are to pesticides during fetal and early childhood development. “These delicate developmental processes are easily disrupted by very small doses of toxic chemicals that would be virtually harmless for an adult,” said Phil Landrigan, dean for global health and a professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. 

Chemical spray damage results in record $7m negligence court payout, by Clint Jasper, ABC. (8.10.17) A grape grower in Australia was awarded $7 million in damages for losses caused by a neighbor’s negligent spraying of 2,4-D and other chemicals. “The chemical 2,4-D has been at the centre of a number of controversies, including in 2013 when it was revealed imported 2,4-D herbicides contained elevated levels of deadly dioxins.”

WHO unit finds 2,4-D herbicide ‘possibly’ causes cancer in humans, by Carey Gillam, Reuters. (6.22.15)  “IARC’s findings on 2,4-D have been awaited by environmental and consumer groups that are lobbying U.S. regulators to tightly restrict its use, as well as by farm groups and others that defend 2,4-D as an important agent in food production that does not need more restrictions.”

Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe, by Carey Gillam, Environmental Health News. (11.27.18) “Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has also raised concerns about pesticide dangers through exposures once assumed to be safe …. Last year she called for “an overall reduction in the use of agricultural pesticides” due to multiple concerns for human health, stating that “existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe.’”

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. 

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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See our related coverage, Why Bill Gates plans to remake food systems will harm (not help) the climate 

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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