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. 

Critiques of Gates Foundation agricultural interventions in Africa

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

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

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

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

Overview of critiques 

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

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

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

Letter from African faith leaders

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

Most recent Gates Foundation food-related news

Recent statements opposing Gates’ interventions in African food systems 

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

African groups call for shift in funding, political advocacy 

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

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

Million Belay, AFSA

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

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

Resources and statements from African groups  

Recent reporting and perspectives on African food systems 

UN Food Systems Summit controversy 

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

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

Nick Jacobs, IPES-Food, Common Dreams 

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

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

Statements critiquing the food summit 

Reports about food systems governance and transformation   

News coverage and perspectives on food summit 

How the Gates Foundation funds agricultural development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reports on Gates Foundation funding and influence 

Gates Foundation perspectives

Critiques of the “Green Revolution” for Africa 

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

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

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

Independent reports

AGRA perspectives and reports 

News coverage and critical perspectives

GMOs in the Global South

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

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

Brian Dowd-Uribe, USFCA

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

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

Reports and articles about GMOs in the Global South   

Statements from NGOs and scientists 

Gates influence on media and food narratives

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

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

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

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

Cornell Alliance for Science critiques 

Reporting on Gates’ media influence

More Gates Foundation news  

Reporting by U.S. Right to Know 

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

 

What Bill Gates Isn’t Telling You About GMOs

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Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know:

As the big food companies announce plans to label genetically engineered foods in the U.S., we take a closer look at pro and con arguments about the controversial food technology. Two recent videos illuminate the divide over GMOs.

In January, Bill Gates explained his support for genetic engineering in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein:

“What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it’s done in a way where there’s a very thorough safety procedure, and it’s pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification. And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change …

The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat.”

If Gates is right, that’s great news. That means the key to solving the hunger problem is lowering barriers for companies to get their climate-resilient, nutrition-improved genetically engineered crops to market.

Is Gates right?

Another video released the same week as Gates’ WSJ interview provides a different perspective.

The short film by the Center for Food Safety describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental genetically engineered crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides.

The film and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive herbicides. According to the video:

“With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it’s no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they’re spraying.”

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that’s a big problem. Both these stories can’t be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates’ narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii – the leading testing grounds for genetically engineered crops in the U.S. – to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops that are driving up the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and a chemical the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classify as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now “the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world”, reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow’s Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune.

The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval – a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

Instead of bustling with promising new types of resilient adaptive GMO crops, Hawaii is bustling with grassroots efforts to protect communities from pesticide drift, require chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they are using, and restrict GMO crop-growing in areas near schools and nursing homes.

Schools near farms in Kauai have been evacuated due to pesticide drift, and doctors in Hawaii say they are observing increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides, reported Christopher Pala in the Guardian and The Ecologist.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures are linked to childhood cancers, decreased cognitive function, behavioral problems and birth defects.

In Argentina – the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops – doctors are also raising concerns about higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects they suspect are related to pesticides, reported Michael Warren in The Associated Press.

Warren’s story from 2013 cited evidence of “uncontrolled pesticide applications”:

“The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.”

In a follow-up story, Monsanto defended glyphosate as safe and called for more controls to stop the misuse of agricultural chemicals, and Warren reported:

“Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads – not laboratory experiments – show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they’re calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.”

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher responded, “the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”

The absence of reliable data is compounded by the fact that most chemicals are assessed for safety on an individual basis, yet exposures typically involve chemical combinations.

‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

A recent UCLA study found that California regulators are failing to assess the health risks of pesticide mixtures, even though farm communities – including areas near schools, day care centers and parks – are exposed to multiple pesticides, which can have larger-than-anticipated health impacts.

Exposures also occur by multiple routes. Reporting on health problems and community concerns in Avia Teria, a rural town in Argentina surrounded by soybean fields, Elizabeth Grossman wrote in National Geographic:

“Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician. In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals.”

In Iowa, which grows more genetically engineered corn than any other state in the U.S., water supplies have been polluted by chemical run off from corn and animal farms, reported Richard Manning in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40% of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture – certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water – would begin to evaporate.”

These experiences in three areas leading the world in GMO crop production are obviously relevant to the question of whether Africa should embrace GMOs as the best solution for future food security. So why isn’t Bill Gates discussing these issues?

Propaganda watch

GMO proponents like to focus on possible future uses of genetic engineering technology, while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks. They often try to marginalize critics who raise concerns as uninformed or anti-science; or, as Gates did, they suggest a false choice that countries must accept GMOs if they want “to let their people have enough to eat.”

This logic leaps over the fact that, after decades of development, most GMO crops are still engineered to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides (or both) while more complicated (and much hyped) traits, such as vitamin-enhancement, have failed to get off the ground.

“Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality,” reported Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the multinational agrichemical companies that also own a large portion of the seed business are profiting from both the herbicide-resistant seeds and the herbicides they are designed to resist, and many new GMO applications in the pipeline follow this same vein.

These corporations have also spent hundreds of million dollars on public relations efforts to promote industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, GMO agriculture as the answer to world hunger – using similar talking points that Gates put forth in his Wall Street Journal interview, and that Gates-funded groups also echo.

For a recent article in The Ecologist, I analyzed the messaging of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO communications program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

My analysis found that the group provides little information about possible risks or downsides of GMOs, and instead amplifies the agrichemical industry’s PR mantra that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

“You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”

This contradicts the World Health Organization, which states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Over 300 scientists, MDs and academics have said there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

The concerns scientists are raising about the glyphosate-based herbicides that go with GMOs are also obviously relevant to the safety discussion.

Yet rather than raising these issues as part of a robust science discussion, the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and associates to downplay concerns about pesticides in Hawaii and attack journalists who report on these concerns.

It’s difficult to understand how these sorts of shenanigans are helping to solve hunger in Africa.

Public science for sale

The Cornell Alliance for Science is the latest example of a larger troubling pattern of universities and academics serving corporate interests over science.

Recent scandals relating to this trend include Coca-Cola funded professors who downplayed the link between diet and obesity, a climate-skeptic professor who described his scientific papers as “deliverables” for corporate funders, and documents obtained by my group U.S. Right to Know that reveal professors working closely with Monsanto to promote GMOs without revealing their ties to Monsanto.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, warned that public science is in grave danger.

“I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill – pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index – and the idea of science as a public good is being lost … People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.”

As the world’s wealthiest foundation and as major funders of academic research, especially in the realm of agriculture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in a position to support science in the public interest.

Gates Foundation strategies, however, often align with corporate interests. A 2014 analysis by the Barcelona-based research group Grain found that about 90% of the $3 billion the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries went to wealthy nations, mostly for high-tech research.

A January 2016 report by the UK advocacy group Global Justice Now argues that Gates Foundation spending, especially on agricultural projects, is exacerbating inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

“Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices,” the group said.

But corporate voices are close at hand. The head of the Gates Foundation agricultural research and development team is Rob Horsch, who spent decades of his career at Monsanto.

The case for an honest conversation

Rather than making the propaganda case for GMOs, Bill Gates and Gates-funded groups could play an important role in elevating the scientific integrity of the GMO debate, and ensuring that new food technologies truly benefit communities.

Technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it all depends on the context. As Gates put it, “as long as the right safety things are done.” But those safety things aren’t being done.

Protecting children from toxic pesticide exposures in Hawaii and Argentina and cleaning up water supplies in Iowa doesn’t have to prevent genetic engineering from moving forward. But those issues certainly highlight the need to take a precautionary approach with GMOs and pesticides.

That would require robust and independent assessments of health and environmental impacts, and protections for farmworkers and communities.

That would require transparency, including labeling GMO foods as well as open access to scientific data, public notification of pesticide spraying, and full disclosure of industry influence over academic and science organizations.

It would require having a more honest conversation about GMOs and pesticides so that all nations can use the full breadth of scientific knowledge as they consider whether or not to adopt agrichemical industry technologies for their food supply.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Sign up for our newsletter here. Stacy is author of the book, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ (New Society Publishing, 2007) and co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow Stacy on Twitter: @stacymalkan.