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Bill Gates Food Tracker

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Updated regularly with news and tips about Bill Gates’ agri-tech food agenda. Why are we tracking Gates? Read our introductory post. And please sign up for the our newsletter for updates. 

May 26, 2021

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

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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March 9, 2021

The next neocolonial gold rush? African food systems are the ‘new oil,’ UN documents say

Planning documents for the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit shed new light on the agenda behind the controversial food summit that hundreds of farmers’ and human rights groups are boycotting. The groups say agribusiness interests and elite foundations are dominating the process to push through an agenda that would enable the exploitation of global food systems, and especially Africa. 

The documents, including a background paper prepared for summit dialogues and a draft policy brief for the summit, bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), who provided the documents to U.S. Right to Know.

The dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands,” ACB said in a statement.

Radical shift

A background paper prepared by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and partner groups for a regional dialogue on African food systems provides details about the plans underway. The document notes that it was issued “without formal editing and in English only owing to late submission.”

A “radical transformation shift is required,” the paper said, to move Africa “from current doldrums of significant importation of food from outside Africa.”  The paper recounts the dire and worsening situation in Africa where 256 million people are suffering from hunger, and more than half the population in parts of Eastern Africa are food insecure. The Covid 19 pandemic is exacerbating inequity and exposing the vulnerability of Africa’s food system.

These dynamics are creating an imperative for African governments to create an “enabling environment through improved policies and investments in agricultural public goods, scale up digital solutions for agriculture, and develop innovative financing schemes through public-private partnerships,” the paper said.  

“It is also time to put the investments where they are most needed; for example, African governments channeling millions of dollars in public support to climate-smart agriculture investments … and, strengthening use of big data to drive smarter farm-level decisions on water management, fertilizer use, deploying drought-resistant crop varieties and accessing markets.” 

This agenda aligns perfectly with the plans of the agrichemical industry, the Gates Foundation and its main agricultural development program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which 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. These groups say new technologies under development and “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture are the path forward.  

The plans proposed in the documents are a “predictable recycling” of the “same false solutions … with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors,” ACB said in its statement. 

“The aims are not about transforming global relations with the well being of Africans and our ecological systems at the centre, but rather to entrench Africa firmly into global relations and developmental norms defined through colonialism and neoliberal globalisation.”

The ‘New Oil’

Parts of the UN background paper read like a sales pitch for investors and agrichemical industry products, but without providing full disclosure of the problems these products sometimes cause. 

“Economies that in the last four decades prospered in Africa have done so through the exploitation of mineral wealth, especially oil and gas locally dubbed as ‘black gold,’” the paper explains. “Now, the continent is in motion with [a] rapidly fast transforming agricultural and agribusiness sector that is rapidly causing excitement as well as [a] central focus for investors and investment prioritization to shift to the ‘new oil’ set to drive the continent and offer the US$1 trillion by 2030.” 

A section titled “the promise of digital and biotechnologies and the transformation of food systems,” discusses “the significant potential for capturing large economic, social and environmental payoffs from the use of biotechnology products … In West Africa, for instance, farmers can benefit significantly from the adoption of Bt cotton.” 

The paper does not reference the failed Bt cotton experiment in Burkina Faso, the first country in Africa to adopt a large-scale genetically engineered crop for small farmers. Monsanto’s Bt cotton resisted insects and provided good yields, but could not deliver the same high quality as the native variety, and the country abandoned the GM crop.  

The Burkina Faso story illustrates a “little-known quandary faced by genetic engineering,” Reuters reported. “For Burkina Faso’s cotton growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. For Monsanto, whose $13.5 billion in revenues in 2016 were more than Burkina Faso’s GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.”

review of 20 years of data on Bt cotton in India published last year found the cotton was a poor indicator of yield trends and although it initially reduced the need for pesticides, “farmers now spend more on pesticides today than before the introduction of Bt.”

‘One Africa voice’ 

“Rebuilding the food systems of the world will … be conditional on wide scale deployment of relevant technologies and innovations,” according to a draft policy brief created for the summit. The document describes two webinars and an online discussion that aim to forge “One Africa Voice” toward the food summit for “key game changes needed to strengthen African agricultural research and development.”   

The process was convened independently of the summit by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the National Agricultural Research Systems and other research and policy groups. African food movements have not been involved in the dialogue, Mayet said. 

Keys to transforming the food system, according to the policy brief, include generating “effective demand for science, technology and innovation” from smallholder farmers, and encouraging African governments to invest more resources into agricultural research “and its products i.e. technologies and innovations.” 

The document notes “a need to devote more attention to the collection of data and development of capacities for analysis showing the return” on agricultural research for development and to “equitable policy formulation and implementation, ie, policies for enforcing property rights, including intellectual property rights, rewarding farmers for ecosystem services, ensuring safe and healthy diets at affordable prices.”

The dialogue “seems to represent another legitimating space for elite-consensus building which will then be presented at the UN Food Systems Summit as the ‘voice of Africa’ … However, such a voice will be far from that of the ordinary African working person,” ACB said.  “Instead, it reflects the priorities of development experts aligned to the modernist, technology-driven visions of change and transformation, biotechnology companies, agribusiness, and the neoliberal, global development agenda.”

“Africa must question the meanings of productivity, and the social relations in which smallholder farmers could genuinely achieve greater productivity in relation to economic wellbeing and social and ecological justice.”

One CGIAR

The policy battles converging at the 2021 Food Systems Summit threaten “to force-feed the failed industrial food system to the public sector and world agriculture, binding governments to a corporate agenda that marginalizes farmers, civil society, social movements and agroecology,” according to a February 2020 report from the ETC Group that described the dynamics in play around the summit. 

One key battle concerns the future of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 agricultural research centers with over 10,000 scientists and technicians on its payroll and nearly 800,000 crop varieties in its 11 gene banks. A Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation are heading up a proposed restructuring plan to consolidate the network into “One CGIAR” with a single board with new agenda-setting powers.

The proposed restructuring, according to a July letter from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, would “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors – many of whom are reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.” 

The process, IPES said, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner, with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Many experts are saying a paradigm shift is necessary away from industrial agriculture and toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of the current industrial model, including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation. 

In 2019, a high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition for the UN recommends transitioning to diversified food systems, addressing power inequalities in food systems, and investing in research systems that support agroecology as the way forward. 

Documents 

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development 4 March 2021, Brazzaville, Congo Background Paper, ECA, AUC, FAO, AUDA-NEPAD, WEP, UNICEF, IFAD, AfDB, Akademiya2063, RUFORUM (2021)  

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems (agenda item 9), Thursday March 4, UN Economic and Social Council

Policy Brief, Strengthening African Agricultural Research and Development Towards an Improved Africa Food System, “One Africa Voice” towards the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, FARA, Sub Regional Research Organizations, NARS, AFAAS, AGRA, FANRPAN

ACB Reaction to the Regional Dialogue on African Food Systems, which took place at the Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, 4 March 2021

February 26, 2021

Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake our food systems

New post May 26: Bill Gates plans to change our food: What’s on the menu?

Controversial food and agriculture agenda

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on its efforts to transform food systems in Africa, with investments that are “intended to help millions of small farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” A growing chorus of critics say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies — based on the “green revolution” model of industrial expansion — are outdated, harmful and impeding the transformative changes necessary to feed the world and fix the climate.

The battle has been brewing for more than a decade as food sovereignty movements in Africa have resisted the push for chemical-intensive agriculture, patented seeds and monocrops. A better model, the food movements say, can be found in agroecological projects that are increasing productivity with lower costs and higher incomes for farmers, while also building climate resiliency. In 2019, a high level UN panel of experts on food security and nutrition called for a paradigm shift away from industrial agriculture and toward agroecology.

UN Food Systems Summit showdown

The debate is now headed for a showdown at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Rather than following the advice of their own expert panel, the UN has allowed what critics describe as an agribusiness takeover of the food summit, led by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations and the World Economic Forum (WEF). These groups want to ramp up industrial agricultural development models that critics say are harming the climate and failing to feed the hungry

Hundreds of civil society groups are denouncing the Summit and its leadership by Agnes Kailibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security — a group representing 550 civil society organizations with more than 300 million members — said in March it would boycott the summit and set up a parallel meeting.

Three UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to food are also speaking out about the summit’s deep deficiencies. In an open letter to Kalibata in January, the current Special Rapporteur Michael Fakhri expressed his concerns that the summit is heavily skewed in favor of financiers and market-based solutions. “There will be no real solutions if we focus on science and technology, profits and markets, without also addressing fundamental questions of equality, accountability, and governance,” he wrote. Many groups criticized the Gates Foundation’s heavy influence in focusing on market-based strategies.

Excerpt from letter from 176 organizations from 83 countries asking UN Secretary General António Guterres to revoke the Special Envoy appointment of Agnes Kalibata, president of AGRA:

Statements opposing the corporate agenda of the UNFSS

Articles

  • Farmers and rights groups boycott food summit over big business links, The Guardian (3.4.21)
  • UN Food Systems Summit: How Not to Respond to the Urgency of Reform, by Michael Fakri, Hilal Elver, Olivier De Schutter, IPS News (3.22.21)
  • Faiths institute asks Gates Foundation to change tactics in Africa, Catholic News Service (2.22.21)
  • We Should All Be Worried About The United Nations Food Systems Summit, by A Growing Culture, Medium (5.1.21)
  • The world needs a food movement based on agroecology and equity (commentary), by Pat Mooney, Mongabay (4.21.21)
  • UN Rapporteur to Agnes Kalibata: Food Systems Summit needs human rights at its core, by Lise Colyer, Quota (1.14.21)

Hear Professor Michael Fakhri explain what’s at stake at the UN World Food Summit and why food systems are a major problem and also key solution for climate change.

Our series on Bill Gates

In a series of posts, U.S. Right to Know is examines Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation’s plans to remake our food system. Why are we focusing on Bill Gates? Gates has an extraordinary amount of power over our food systems and he is using it. Gates is one of the world’s leading investors in biotechnology companies that patent food. He is the largest owner of farmland in the United States. His $50 billion tax-exempt private foundation exerts major influence over political negotiations and research agendas that guide how food systems develop in the Global South, and what food we all grow and eat.

Related USRTK posts:

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U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. We are working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten the integrity of our food system, our environment and our health.

February 25, 2021

Bill Gates’ plans to remake food systems will harm the climate

By Stacy Malkan

In his new book on how to avoid a climate disaster, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates discusses his plans to model African food systems upon India’s “green revolution,” in which a plant scientist increased crop yields and saved a billion lives, according to Gates. The obstacle to implementing a similar overhaul in Africa, he asserts, is that most farmers in poor countries don’t have the financial means to buy fertilizers.  

“If we can help poor farmers raise their crop yields, they’ll earn more money and have more to eat, and millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries will be able to get more food and the nutrients they need,” Gates concludes. He doesn’t consider many obvious aspects of the hunger crisis, just as he skips crucial elements of the climate debate, as Bill McKibben points out in the New York Times review of Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. 

Gates fails to mention, for example, that hunger is largely due to poverty and inequality, not scarcity. And he seems unaware that the decades-long “green revolution” push for industrial agriculture in India has left a harsh legacy of harm for both the ecosystem and smallholder farmers, who have been protesting in the streets since last year.   

“Farmer protests in India are writing the Green Revolution’s obituary,” Aniket Aga wrote in Scientific American last month. Decades into the green revolution strategy, “it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition,” Aga writes. “No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model.”

This model — which moves farmers toward ever-larger and less-diverse farming operations that rely on pesticides and climate-harming chemical fertilizers — is one the Gates Foundation has been promoting in Africa for 15 years, over the opposition of African food movements who say the foundation is pushing the priorities of multinational agribusiness corporations to the detriment of their communities.  

Hundreds of civil society groups are protesting the Gates Foundation’s agricultural strategies and its influence over the upcoming UN World Food Summit. Insiders say this leadership is threatening to derail meaningful efforts to transform the food system, at a crucial moment when much of sub-Saharan Africa is reeling from multiple shocks and a growing hunger crisis due to pandemic and climate change conditions. 

All this has gone unnoticed by major media outlets that are rolling out the red carpet for Gates’ book. Here are some of the reasons the critics say Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program is bad for the climate. The foundation has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Related post: Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake the food system 

Ramping up greenhouse gas emissions

Gates is not shy about his passion for synthetic fertilizer, as he explains in this blog about his visit to the Yara fertilizer distribution plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The new plant is the largest of its kind in East Africa. Fertilizer is a “magical invention that can help lift millions of people out of poverty,” Gates writes. “Watching workers fill bags with the tiny white pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was a powerful reminder of how every ounce of fertilizer has the potential to transform lives in Africa.”

Corp Watch describes Yara as “the fertilizer giant causing climate catastrophe.” Yara is Europe’s biggest industrial buyer of natural gas, actively lobbies for fracking, and is a top producer of synthetic fertilizers that scientists say are responsible for worrying increases in emissions of nitrous oxide. The greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. According to a recent Nature paper, nitrous oxide emissions driven largely by agriculture are rising in an increasing feedback loop that is putting us on a worst-case trajectory for climate change.

Gates acknowledges that synthetic fertilizers harm the climate. As a solution, Gates hopes for technological inventions on the horizon, including an experimental project to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to soil. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” 

In the meantime, the key focus of Gates’ green revolution efforts for Africa is expanding the use of synthetic fertilizer with the aim of boosting yields, even though there isn’t any evidence to show that 14 years of these efforts have helped small farmers or the poor, or produced significant yield gains.

Expanding climate-harming monocultures 

The Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion since 2006 to “help drive agricultural transformation” in Africa. The bulk of the funding goes to technical research and efforts to transition African farmers to industrial agricultural methods and increase their access to commercial seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Proponents say these efforts give farmers the choices they need to boost production and lift themselves out of poverty. Critics argue that Gates’ “green revolution” strategies are harming Africa by making ecosystems more fragile, putting farmers into debt, and diverting public resources away from deeper systemic changes needed to confront the climate and hunger crises. 

“The Gates Foundation promotes a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people,” a group of faith leaders from Africa wrote in a letter to the foundation, raising concerns that the foundation’s “support for the expansion of intensive industrial agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.” 

The foundation, they noted, “encourages African farmers to adopt a high input–high output approach that is based on a business model developed in a Western setting” and “puts pressure on farmers to grow just one or a few crops based on commercial high-yielding or genetically modified (GM) seeds.”

Gates’ flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), steers farmers toward maize and other staple crops with the aim of boosting yields. According to AGRA’s operational plan for Uganda (emphasis theirs):

  • Agricultural transformation is defined as a process by which farmers shift from highly diversified, subsistence-oriented production towards more specialized production oriented towards the market or other systems of exchange, involving a greater reliance on input and output delivery systems and increased integration of agriculture with other sectors of the domestic and international economies.

AGRA’s primary focus is programs to increase farmers’ access to commercial seeds and fertilizers to grow maize and a few other crops. This “green revolution” technology package is further supported by $1 billion a year in subsidies from African governments, according to research published last year by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and report by African and German groups

The researchers found no sign of a productivity boom; the data show modest yield gains of 18% for staple crops in AGRA’s target countries, while incomes stagnated and food security worsened, with the number of hungry and undernourished people up 30%. AGRA disputed the research but has not provided detailed reporting of its results over 15 years. An AGRA spokesperson told us a report will be forthcoming in April.

The independent researchers also reported a decline in traditional crops, such as millet, which is climate-resilient and also an important source of micronutrients for millions of people.

The AGRA model imposed on previously relatively diverse Rwanda farming almost certainly undermined its more nutritious and sustainable traditional agricultural cropping patterns,” Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN assistant secretary-general for economic development, wrote in an article describing the research.  The AGRA package, he notes, was “imposed with a heavy hand” in Rwanda, with “the government reportedly banning cultivation of some other staple crops in some areas.”  

Diverting resources from agroecology 

“If global food systems are to become sustainable, input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must become obsolete,” the African faith leaders wrote in their appeal to the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, many experts say a paradigm shift is necessary, away from uniform, monoculture cropping systems toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of industrial agriculture including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation.

The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns against the damaging effects of monocropping, and highlights the importance of agroecology, which the panel said could improve the “sustainability and resilience of agricultural systems by buffering climate extremes, reducing degradation of soils, and reversing unsustainable use of resources; and consequently increase yield without damaging biodiversity.”

Rupa Marya, MD, associate professor of medicine at UCSF, discusses agroecology at the 2021 EcoFarm conference

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization expert panel report on agroecology clearly calls for a shift away from the “green revolution” industrial agriculture model and toward agroecological practices that have been shown to increase the diversity of food crops, reduce costs and build climate resilience. 

But programs to scale up agroecology are starving for funding  as billions in aid and subsidies go to prop up industrial agriculture models. Key barriers holding back investments in agroecology include donor preferences for profitability, scalability and short-term results, according to a 2020 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation funded agricultural development research projects for Africa in recent years were limited to “supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency via targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices, livestock vaccines or reductions in post-harvest losses,” the report said. Only 3% of the projects included elements of agroecological redesign.

The researchers note, “agroecology does not not fit within existing investment modalities. Like many philanthropic givers, the BMGF [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.” 

These preferences weigh heavy in decisions about how research develops for global food systems. The largest recipient of Gates Foundation’s agricultural funding is CGIAR, a consortium of 15 research centers employing thousands of scientists and managing 11 of the world’s most important gene banks. The centers historically focused on developing a narrow set of crops that could be mass produced with the help of chemical inputs. 

In recent years, some CGIAR centers have taken steps toward systemic and rights-based approaches, but a proposed restructuring plan to create “One CGIAR” with a single board and new agenda-setting powers is raising concerns. According to IPES food, the restructuring proposal threatens to “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors,” such as the Gates Foundation, who are “reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.”

The restructuring process led by a Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner,” IPES said, “with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has kicked in another $310 million to CGIAR to “help 300 million smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.” 

Inventing new uses for GMO pesticide crops

The takeaway message of Gates new book is that technological breakthroughs can feed the world and fix the climate, if only we can invest enough resources toward these innovations. The world’s largest pesticide/seed companies are promoting the same theme, rebranding themselves from climate deniers to problem solvers: advances in digital farming, precision agriculture and genetic engineering will reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture and “empower 100 million smallholder farmers” to adapt to climate change, “all by the year 2030,” according to Bayer CropScience.

The Gates Foundation and the chemical industry are “selling the past as innovation in Africa,” argues Timothy Wise, a research fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in a new paper for Tufts GDAE. “The real innovation,” Wise said, “is happening in farmers’ fields as they work with scientists to increase the production of a diversity of food crops, reduce costs, and build climate resilience by adopting agroecological practices.” 

As a harbinger of tech breakthroughs to come, Gates points in his book to the Impossible Burger. In a chapter entitled “How We Grow Things,” Gates describes his satisfaction with the bleeding veggie burger (in which he is a major investor) and his hopes that plant-based burgers and cell-based meats will be major solutions for climate change. 

He’s right, of course, that shifting away from factory-farmed meat is important for the climate. But is the Impossible Burger a sustainable solution, or just a marketable way to turn industrially produced crops into patented food productsAs Anna Lappe explains, Impossible Foods “is going all in on GMO soy,” not only as the burger’s core ingredient but also as the theme of the company’s sustainability branding.  

For 30 years, the chemical industry promised GMO crops would boost yields, reduce pesticides and feed the world sustainably, but it hasn’t turned out that way. As Danny Hakim reported in the New York Times, GMO crops did not produce better yields. The GMO crops also drove up the use of herbicides, especially glyphosate, which is linked to cancer among other health and environmental problems. As weeds became resistant, the industry developed seeds with new chemical tolerances. Bayer, for example, is forging ahead with GMO crops engineered to survive five herbicides.

Mexico recently announced plans to ban GMO corn imports, declaring the crops “undesirable” and “unnecessary.”

In South Africa, one of the few African countries to allow commercial cultivation of GMO crops, more than 85% of maize and soy is now engineered, and most is sprayed with glyphosate. Farmers, civil society groups, political leaders and doctors are raising concerns about rising cancer rates. And food insecurity is rising, too.  South Africa’s experience with GMOs has been “23 years of failures, biodiversity loss and escalating hunger,” according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

The green revolution for Africa, says the group’s founder Mariam Mayet, is a “dead-end” leading to “declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.” 

“It is vital that now, at this pivotal moment in history,” says the African Centre for Biodiversity, “that we shift the trajectory, phasing out industrial agriculture and transition towards a just and ecologically sound agricultural and food system.”  

Stacy Malkan is managing editor and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. Sign up for the Right to Know newsletter for regular updates.

Related: Read about Cargill’s $50 million production facility to genetically engineer stevia, a high-value and sustainably grown crop that many farmers in the Global South depend on.

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