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, with a key focus on transforming African agriculture by transitioning farmers to patented seeds and fossil-fuel based fertilizers to grow staple crops for the global market. Leading experts in food security and hundreds of groups in Africa and around the world say the foundation’s market-based agricultural development strategies are aiding multinational corporations more than small farmers and communities in Africa, even as hunger and inequality worsen. This fact sheet links to reports, critiques and news articles describing these concerns. We will update it regularly.

Table of contents (drop links) 
Most 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 core strategy to reduce hunger in Africa is to expand industrial agricultural practices in ways that increase production of 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 “green revolution” that boosted production of staple crops in India. But critics say the strategy in India has left a legacy of inequity that has fueled farmer protests there. Several recent reports provide evidence that the Gates-led “green revolution” for Africa has failed to deliver on its promises. Despite billions of dollars in aid and government subsidies, hunger and malnutrition have worsened across sub-Saharan Africa. More than 40 million people in the region are at risk of increased hunger and poverty as countries grapple with multiple shocks from the pandemic and climate change. 

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

Hundreds of groups are planning protests and boycotts of the food summit because of the influence being wielded by financiers and corporations pushing to expand high-input industrial agriculture, especially in Africa. These groups and leading experts on food security and nutrition say there is an urgent need to change course, and support diverse agroecological farming systems that promote biodiversity instead of monocultures and include political and economic reforms that address inequity and social divisions. 

Most recent Gates Foundation food-related news

Opposition from African groups

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 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.

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.  

 

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

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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

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.

Gates Foundation’s Failing ‘Green Revolution’ for Africa: New Report 

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Research from Tufts GDAE finds the billion-dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is not living up to its promises

A longer version of this article ran in The Ecologist
See more USRTK reporting on Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation

By Stacy Malkan

Massive investments spent promoting and subsidizing commercial seeds and agrichemicals across Africa have failed to fulfill their purpose of alleviating hunger and lifting small-scale farmers out of poverty, according to a new white paper published by the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute. A report based largely on the research, “False Promises,” was published July 10 by African and German nonprofits that are calling for a shift in support to agroecological farming practices. 

The research led by Timothy A. Wise examines the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an international nonprofit launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations in 2006 with promises to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households while cutting food insecurity in half in 20 African countries by 2020. 

In pursuit of that vision, AGRA collected nearly $1 billion in donations and disbursed $524 million, primarily in 13 African countries, on programs promoting the use of commercial seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This “Green Revolution” technology package is further supported by subsidies; Wise reports that African national governments spent $1 billion per year in the target countries subsidizing the purchase of seeds and agrichemicals.

Despite the public support, AGRA has provided no comprehensive evaluation or reporting on its impacts. The Tufts researchers relied on national-level data for agricultural productivity, poverty, hunger and malnutrition to assess progress.

“We find little evidence of widespread progress on any of AGRA’s goals, which is striking given the high levels of government subsidies for technology adoption,” the researchers report. The paper documents slow productivity growth, no significant increases in food security or small-farmer incomes in the target countries, and worsening hunger. 

“It’s a failing model, failing results; it’s time to change course.”

“The evidence suggests that AGRA is failing on its own terms,” the paper concludes. In an interview, Wise summed up his findings about the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa: “It’s a failing model, failing results; it’s time to change course.” 

AGRA said it is “very disappointed” in the research. “Over the last 14 years, AGRA has achieved its successes, but has also learned a lot,” the group said in a statement. AGRA said the Tufts paper failed to meet “basic academic and professional standards of peer review and asking the subject to comment on the ‘findings,’” and accused Wise of having “a history of writing unfounded allegations and uncorroborated reports about AGRA and its work.” In an email, Andrew Cox, Chief of Staff and Strategy at AGRA, further criticized the research approach as “not professional and ethical,” and said they “prefer to have transparency and engagement with reporters and others directly around the issues.” He said AGRA “will do a full evaluation against its targets and results” at the end of 2021.

Wise, whose 2019 book “Eating Tomorrow” was critical of aid approaches that push high-cost industrial models for agricultural development in Africa, said he reached out to AGRA several times beginning in January with questions for his research. “If AGRA or the Gates Foundation has data that contradicts these findings, they should make them available,” Wise said.

Among the key findings he reported:   

  • The number of hungry people in AGRA’s 13 focus countries has jumped 30 percent during AGRA’s well-funded Green Revolution.
  • Productivity increased just 29% over 12 years for maize, the most subsidized and supported crop – far short of the goal of a 100% increase. 
  • Many climate-resilient, nutritious crops have been displaced by the expansion in supported crops such as maize. 
  • Even where maize production has increased, incomes and food security have scarcely improved for AGRA’s supposed beneficiaries: small-scale farming households.
  • Despite the Gates Foundation’s promise to help millions of smallholder farmers, many of them women, there is no evidence AGRA is reaching a significant number of smallholder farmers. While some medium-sized farms may see productivity improvements, “those are overwhelmingly farmers – mostly men – with access to land, resources, and markets.”

Wise points to Rwanda as an example of what he described as “AGRA’s failings.” Widely considered an AGRA success story, Rwanda has seen maize yields grow by 66%. However, the data indicates weak overall productivity improvements across staple crops as farmers abandoned more nutritious local crops to grow maize. Meanwhile the number of undernourished has increased 13% in the AGRA years. Rwanda’s former Agriculture Minister, Agnes Kalibata, now heads AGRA and was recently named to lead a planned U.N. World Food Summit in 2021.

“The results of the study are devastating for AGRA and the prophets of the Green Revolution,” said Jan Urhahn, agricultural expert at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, which funded the research.

In its report, the group and its nonprofit partners in Africa and Germany called on donor governments “to provide no further political and financial support for AGRA and switch their funding from AGRA to programs that help small-scale food producers, particularly women and youth, and develop climate-resilient ecologically sustainable farming practices such as agroecology.” 

High public cost, low transparency

So who pays for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa? Of the nearly $1 billion donated to the organization to date, the Gates Foundation has contributed roughly two-thirds ($661 million through 2018), with much of the rest supplied by taxpayers in the U.S., UK and elsewhere. The U.S. government has donated $90 million to AGRA since 2006, according to Cox. 

As evidence of progress and transparency, AGRA points to its annual reports that provide data on short-term objectives, albeit vague the 2019 report for example highlights “4.7 million smallholder farmers reached through various interventions” and “800 million of private capital facilitated.” The report includes some details about progress toward AGRA’s areas of strategic focus: passing policies to facilitate business, trying to scale technologies and engaging partners. The report notes various corporate partnerships and efforts to privatize markets.

For the Tufts analysis, Wise said he contacted AGRA repeatedly for cooperation with requests for their monitoring and evaluation data. The organization said it would provide the information but ceased responding to requests. 

In its rebuttal, AGRA described itself as “an African Institution that is open to critique and happy to share information with researchers and media,” and indicated it has shifted thinking on some of its original metrics. “The task of catalyzing transformation is difficult,” the statements notes, “and needs exceptional commitment, structural change and investment. AGRA will continue to refine its approach based on the needs of our partner farmers, SMEs [small and mid-size enterprises] and the priorities of governments.”

Cox further elaborated in his email: “AGRA has a basket of indicators to track results across farmers, systems, and governments,” he said. “AGRA has been able to demonstrate that on a household by household basis, incomes do sharply increase when farmers are given access to modern seeds and inputs, supported by village level extension.” However, he said, a number of other factors affect incomes that are beyond AGRA’s influence and AGRA’s thinking on farmer incomes has “moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.” 

The Gates Foundation responded to the Tufts paper with a statement from its media team, “We support organizations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies. We also support AGRA’s efforts to monitor progress continually and collect data to inform what’s working and what’s not working. We encourage you to look to AGRA’s newly released annual report for the latest data on its goals and impact. “

Africa-based groups: solutions lie with African people 

The lack of progress toward improved conditions on poverty and hunger is no surprise to Africa-based farming and food sovereignty groups who have opposed the “neocolonial logic” of the Gates Foundation’s Green Revolution from the start. 

“For years we have documented the efforts by the likes of AGRA to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead 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,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The South Africa-based research and advocacy organization has published more than two-dozen papers since 2007 warning about the risks and problems of the AGRA model. 

“Africans don’t need unaccountable American and European agro-chemical and seed companies to develop them,” Mayet said. “We need global trade, financial and debt justice to re-cast Africa’s position in the global economy and that gives us the space to democratically build our future.”

In the context of the COVID crisis especially, she said, “this new report strengthens the argument that Africa is better off without AGRA and its neocolonial logic, and that solutions lie with people on the continent and the world that are building systems grounded in justice, and human and ecological wellbeing.”

Million Belay, who coordinates the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of 30 Africa-based food and farming groups, equated the current market-driven agricultural development model to a “knee on the neck of Africa.” 

In a powerful essay in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the global uprising for racial justice, Belay discussed a false narrative about African food systems that is seeded by “a cohort of actors including philanthrocapitalists, Aid Agencies, governments, academic institutions and embassies … (who) talk about transforming African agriculture but what they are doing is creating a market for themselves cleverly couched in a nice sounding language.”   

“We are told that our seeds are old and have little capacity to give us food and they have to be hybridized and genetically modified to be of use; we are told that what we need is more calories and we need to focus on seeds of few crops; we are told that we are not using our land effectively and it should be given to those who can do a better job of it; we are told that our knowledge about farming is backward and we need to modernize with knowledge from the West … we are told, we need business to invest billions of dollars, and without these saviors from the North, we cannot feed ourselves. Our world is defined simply by producing more, not in having healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, produced without harming the environment,” he wrote.

“It is the same knee that justified colonialism on Africa. I think the only way to remove this knee and breathe is to recognize the knee, understand its ways of working and organize to defend ourselves,” Belay wrote. His group advocates for agroecology, which is now widely promoted among AFSA’s 30 member organizations. AFSA documents a number of case studies showing “how agroecology benefits Africa in terms of food security, nutrition, poverty reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity conservation, cultural sensitivity, democracy, and value for money.”

AGRA’s shifting promises

A year ago, the bold promises of AGRA – to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in Africa by 2020 – appeared prominently on organization’s grants web page. The goals have since disappeared from the page. When asked about this, Cox clarified, “We have not reduced our ambition, but have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate.”

He said AGRA recently updated its website and “didn’t have the resources to get it done in the way that we wanted” but will be updating it again soon. The group also appears to be ramping up its PR efforts. A request for proposal for a three-year communications consultancy, posted in June, describes ambitions to “increase AGRA’s positive media coverage by about 35-50% above the 2017 coverage” (a trends report notes AGRA receives 80 media mentions a month with an uptick in September 2016 to 800 articles).

The scope of work noted in the RFP includes “at least 10 high quality editorials” placed in “influential traditional and emerging global and regional outlets like the New York Times, Ventures Africa, The Africa Report, CNBC-Africa, Al Jazeera, etc.,” and securing “25–30 prime time one-on-one interviews for AGRA experts in major global media.”

A year ago, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa touted its ambitious goals on its grants page (highlight added). By July 2020 that language no longer appeared on the page.

Changing course 

The Tufts report notes that a growing body of research that shows the limits of the input-intensive Green Revolution model of agricultural development and the viability of agroecological approaches. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines agroecology as “an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems.” 

Resources for more information: 

  • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019 documented the many ways industrialized agriculture contributes to climate change, calling for profound changes to both mitigate and help farmers adapt to climate disruptions.
  • May 2020 paper, “Connecting the dots to enable agroecology transformations,” in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, states: “Agroecology is coming into its own as an alternative paradigm to corporate-led industrial food systems. Evidence of the advantages, benefits, impacts, and multiple functions of agroecology abounds. For many the evidence is clear: agroecology, together with ‘food sovereignty’, offer a pathway for more just and sustainable food systems and communities.” See also Agroecology Now Special Issue of Agroecology Transformations.
  • July 2019 expert report on agroecology from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is clear in its call for a break with the Green Revolution model. “Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed,” it says. The report stresses the importance of ecological agriculture, which supports “diversified and resilient production systems, including mixed livestock, fish, cropping and agroforestry, that preserve and enhance biodiversity, as well as the natural resource base.”
  • October 2018 report from International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), “Breaking Away from Industrial Food Systems: Seven Case Studies of Agroecological Transition”
  • February 2018 paper in Food Policy, “Review: Taking stock of Africa’s second-generation agricultural input subsidy programs,” surveyed results from seven countries with input-subsidy programs and found little evidence of sustained—or sustainable—success. “The empirical record is increasingly clear that improved seed and fertilizer are not sufficient to achieve profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems in most parts of Africa,” the authors concluded.
  • June 2016 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), founded by former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter, summarizes the limits of the input-intensive Green Revolution model of agricultural development, and the viability of alternative approaches. “A new agroecological paradigm is required, rooted in fundamentally different relationships between agriculture and the environment, and between food systems and society. The seven case studies in this report provide concrete examples of how, in spite of the many barriers to change, people around the world have been able to fundamentally rethink and redesign food systems around agroecological principles.”
  • The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) has documented the effectiveness of agroecology, now widely promoted among its member organizations. See AFSA’s case studies
  • February 2006 University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79% increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. 

More information

For more details on the latest research conducted by Timothy A. Wise

Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know