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

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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.