Critiques of Gates Foundation agricultural interventions in Africa

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major influencer and funder of agricultural development in Africa, with little accountability or transparency. Leading experts in food security and many groups in Africa and around the world have critiqued the foundation’s push to expand high-cost, high-input, chemical-dependent agriculture in Africa. Critics say this approach is exacerbating hunger, worsening inequality and entrenching corporate power in the world’s hungriest region.

This fact sheet links to reports and news articles documenting these concerns.

You can find more of our reporting on the Gates’s influence on food systems here.

Table of contents (drop links)
Gates Foundation food-related news
Opposition from African groups
Gates Foundation funding for agricultural development
Critiques of the Green Revolution for Africa

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

What are the main critiques of Gates Foundation’s agricultural program?

The Gates Foundation’s flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA, which recently rebranded to remove the term “green revolution” from its name), works to transition farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. The foundation says its goal is to “boost the yields and incomes of millions of small farmers in Africa… so they can lift themselves and their families out of hunger and poverty.” The strategy is modeled on the Indian “green revolution” that boosted production of staple crops but also left a legacy of structural inequity and escalating debt for farmers that contributed to massive mobilizations of peasant farmers in India.

Critics have said the green revolution is a failed approach for poverty reduction that has created more problems than it has solved; these include environmental degradation, growing pesticide use, reduced diversity of food crops, and increased corporate control over food systems. Several recent research reports provide evidence that Gates-led agricultural interventions in Africa have failed to help small farmers. Critics say the programs may even be worsening hunger and malnutrition in Southern Africa.

“Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

Letter from African faith leaders

Against this backdrop, agribusinesses interests and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, are staging what critics describe as power plays to increase their control over global agriculture policies at the UN level. This includes recent proposals to increase industry influence in food systems governance and centralize control over agricultural research centers. The critics, including hundreds of groups that boycotted the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit because they say civil society groups were shut out of the process, argue that food systems must be reorganized to prioritize more diversified food crops under locally controlled systems based on agroecological practices that protect the environment, provide more nutritious crops and address social equity issues.

This is “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems,” says the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and “part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.”

Our reporting

What are African groups saying about Gates Foundation agricultural work in Africa?

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

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

Million Belay, AFSA

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

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

Despite their numerous public reports, statements and attempts to reach out to the Gates Foundation, these African groups say their concerns have gone unanswered by the foundation.

Reports and statements from African groups

Reporting and perspectives on African food systems

How does Gates Foundation spend agricultural development funds?

The Gates Foundation has spent nearly $6 billion on agricultural development programs as of 2022, with a primary focus on “transforming” African food systems. The Gates-funded AGRA defines agricultural transformation as aprocess by which farmers shift from highly diversified, subsistence-oriented production towards more specialized productionoriented 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.

Several groups have analyzed the foundation’s agricultural development funding. The following themes emerge from that research. The Gates Foundation is primarily supporting:

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

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

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

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

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

Reports on Gates Foundation funding and influence

  • African Agricultural Development… for the US? An analysis of the distribution of Gates Foundation grants. AGRA Watch/ Community Alliance for Global Justice, October 2022. Results are broadly consistent with two earlier reports ( GRAIN 2021 and IPES 2020) but uses a different methodology focusing specifically on grants earmarked for Africa and also including AGRA. The report concludes thatmost of the Foundation’s agricultural development grants: 1) go to the Global North, 2) focus on a handful of institutions, many of which were created and/or heavily influenced by the Gates Foundation itself, andratherthan to groups with strong roots in African communities 3) tend to support high-input, industrial models of agriculture.”The Gates Foundation has funded very few projects focused on organic or agroecological approaches, but has funded numerous projects focused on ‘sustainability, ‘ framed in a productivist and corporate-friendly way.”

Gates Foundation perspectives

Opposition to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

The Gates Foundation’s flagship program for changing African agriculture is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The group works to encourage farmers to use hybrid seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and agrichemicals to grow staple crops for the global market, with the goal of boosting yields and raising farmer incomes. AGRA promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. The deadline has passed (and the language since removed from AGRA’s website ) with no comprehensive reporting on progress. (In 2022, AGRA said it had rebranded to remove the words “green revolution” from its name and forum.)

Independent assessments by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups in 2020 provided evidence that AGRA had not delivered significant yield or income gains for small farmers, while hunger had grown by 30% across AGRA’s target countries during the AGRA years. AGRA disagreed with the research but did not provide any data to rebut the findings.

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

Independent reports

AGRA perspectives and reports

News coverage and critical perspectives

Why are GMOs controversial in the Global South?

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

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

Brian Dowd-Uribe, USFCA

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

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

Reports and articles about GMOs in the Global South

Statements from NGOs and scientists

How does Gates influence media and food narratives?

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

“(P)aid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks.”

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

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

Cornell Alliance for Science critiques

Reporting on Gates’ media influence

More Gates Foundation news

Reporting by U.S. Right to Know

Read our series of articles about Bill Gates’ and the Gates Foundation’s plans for our food system, written by Stacy Malkan, managing editor of U.S. Right to Know.

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