African groups want Gates Foundation, USAID to shift agricultural funding as hunger crisis worsens 

Print Email Share Tweet

Billions of dollars in aid and subsidies for industrial agriculture in Africa are harming food security in one of the world’s hungriest regions, according to a network of African groups asking donors to switch their funding to African-led efforts and agroecology. 

In a letter delivered Tuesday, 200 organizations led by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa asked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors to stop financing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The billion-dollar effort has “unequivocally failed in its mission” and “harmed broader efforts to support African farmers,” the groups said. 

The groups delivered their letter as donors gathered for the African Green Revolution Forum this week in Nairobi, Kenya. The annual fundraising event established by Yara International fertilizer company says it is “designed to energize the political will” for policies and investments in sustainable agricultural transformation. The Forum, funded by chemical companies, private donors and other partners, said it will “elevate the single coordinated African voice” to the United Nations Food Systems Summit later this month. 

African Green Revolution Forum partners 

That claim rankled African groups and many others who have been calling on UN leaders for two years to champion human rights, food sovereignty and ecology at the 2021 Food Summit, and say their concerns have been ignored. 

“No, no, no. We are here to state clearly and categorically that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa does not speak for Africans,” said Anne Maina, director of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya. Her group and hundreds of others are boycotting the UN Summit because, they say, it has been captured by corporations and donors who are pushing technological solutions for hunger while ignoring systemic changes necessary to address hunger and poverty.

That AGRA’s president, Agnes Kalibata, is leading the UN food summit is a conflict of interest, critics said, because AGRA is also fundraising for its own programs.

Failing ‘green revolution’? 

Hunger has worsened considerably since the Gates and Rockefeller foundations led a high-profile effort to bring the “green revolution” to Africa in 2006. AGRA’s main focus is transitioning farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizer and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. Bill Gates predicted that increasing inputs would boost agricultural productivity, alleviate hunger and lift small-scale farmers out of poverty. 

AGRA has since raised more than $1 billion, mostly from the Gates Foundation, on promises it would double yields and incomes for 30 million African farmers and cut food insecurity in half by 2020. Instead, the number of severely undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2006, according to the latest UN hunger report. The report paints an alarming picture of the ongoing food crisis in Africa worsened by the pandemic.  

The AGRA goals were removed from the group’s website in 2020 

In their letter to donors, AGRA critics said a decade of research has exposed the failures of the green revolution model. AGRA uses its leverage to encourage African governments to focus on boosting agricultural yields rather than more systemic solutions, they said, noting that African governments in AGRA target countries spend about $1 billion a year on input subsidies.

Academic research suggests AGRA and the larger green revolution effort has had little if any positive impact on Africa’s small-scale farmers. Reports published in 2020 by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups found slow productivity growth for staple crops and no evidence of rising incomes for small-scale farmers. The evidence also suggests that farmers are abandoning more nutritious, climate-resilient crops, such as millet, to grow maize. 

AGRA views

AGRA disagreed with the research but has not produced comprehensive reporting of its results over 15 years. The lofty 2020 goals were removed from AGRA’s website sometime last year as the group underwent a strategy reboot with the help of McKinsey & Company, a controversial U.S.-based business management firm. AGRA has “not reduced our ambition, but (we) have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate,” Andrew Cox, chief of strategy, told USRTK. 

“At farmer level, AGRA focuses on creating the conditions for the smallholder farmers to have access to yield-increasing inputs (seeds, soil fertilizer, good agronomic practices to have better yields under normal conditions), and also facilitates access to storage facilities, and markets to sell their surplus production,” Cox said. “Our thinking on farmer incomes has thus moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.” He said AGRA will publish a full evaluation of results and progress at the end of its 2021 strategy period.

He also expressed frustration with the Tufts report criticizing AGRA. “The data used was years old national level data, including on Zambia, where we haven’t been operational in for many years.  The data could not possibly be extrapolated onto the kinds of regional / sub regional work that we do,” Cox wrote via email. “This has been extremely frustrating, not least as transforming (agriculture) in Africa is difficult, and we should all be trying to learn in supporting farmers who have had a pretty raw deal over the decades.”

The AFSA groups, however, said AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s efforts have been top-down and deaf to the concerns Africa’s small-scale food producers have raised. 

“We welcome investment in agriculture on our continent,”  Million Belay, PhD, and Bridget Mugambe of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), wrote in a recent Scientific American article. “But we seek it in a form that is democratic and responsive to the people at the heart of agriculture.”

Investments in agroecology

AFSA is asking donors to transition their financial and political support to African-led efforts to expand agroecology and low-input farming methods they say can provide more abundant, nutritious foods, protect the environment and create a more equitable, sustainable food system. Leading experts in food security and nutrition have also called for a paradigm shift away from chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and toward agroecology and policies that address social issues and inequality. 

However, donors such as the Gates Foundation — the leading private donor to agricultural development in Africa — are “holding back investments in agroecological research,” according to a 2020 report from sustainable food system experts. For some of the top donors, “agroecology does not fit within existing investment modalities,” the researchers said. “Like many philanthropic givers, the [Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favors targeted, technological solutions.”  

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation research grants supported industrial agriculture, the report notes, while merely 3% contained elements of agroecology. Kenyan research centers also spent heavily on industrial agriculture. “In Kenya, low awareness of alternatives to the (new) Green Revolution model emerged as the greatest barrier to supporting and implementing more agroecological projects.” 

‘Zero response’ from Gates Foundation 

AFSA wrote to all of AGRA’s donors in June asking them to provide research supporting the benefits of AGRA. The African groups said they received few responses, and no credible evidence of AGRA’s benefits to farmers or the general public. African faith groups also reached out to the Gates Foundation in June, with a letter signed by 500 faith leaders asking the foundation to stop funding industrial monoculture farming. That model, they said, is “deepening the humanitarian crisis in Africa.” 

The faith groups received “zero response” from the Gates Foundation, said Francesca de Gasparis, director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). “We’re extremely disappointed to say the least,” she said. “We’re making a very important science-based point that this model of agriculture … is not serving the people of Africa.”

The Gates Foundation also did not respond to AFSA’s letter, nor did the U.S. government, which has spent $90 million of taxpayer money since 2006 funding AGRA. Neither the Gates Foundation nor USAID responded to requests for comment from U.S. Right to Know.  

Yara and other donors respond  

The Norwegian government told AFSA via email they are “currently not providing support to AGRA” and are encouraging “increased dialogue and research on options for agricultural development” in Africa. Two other AGRA donors, the IKEA Foundation and Canadian International Development Research Group, said they continue to fund aspects of AGRA’s work, and noted they are also funding efforts to expand agroecology. 

In response to queries about whether they have assessed the effectiveness of AGRA, a UK government official said, “a comprehensive evaluation of AGRA is currently underway.” He said the UK’s engagement with AGRA has “primarily focused on strengthening regional food trade and resilience within the continent” and collaborating with members of AGRA’s Africa-led Partnership for Inclusive Agriculture Transformation in Africa.

Yara International President and CEO Svein Tore Holsether told AFSA he hoped its members would consider the African Green Revolution Forum “as an opportunity for an honest exchange, rather than seeing it as a battleground for fixed positions.” But it was only after AFSA held a press conference last week, and aired their concerns in East Africa’s largest newspaper, that the Forum’s leaders reached out to the group.  

In a Sept. 6 email, AGRA president Agnes Kalibata invited AFSA’s Million Belay to participate on an “Insights Panel to discuss walking the path to change” on Thursday. Belay’s group declined the invitation to speak for “five or so minutes” near the end of the conference. “We disagree with the Green Revolution’s approach on a basic level. The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health, and undermined our seeds and culture elsewhere and in Africa. It is extremely detrimental to Africa’s future,” Belay wrote to Kalibata. 

AGRA’s work to change seed laws, biosafety standards and fertilizer rules and regulations will make Africa “far more reliant on corporate-led agriculture,” Belay said. “For us, the Green Revolution is a source of great anxiety. We are part of a burgeoning agroecology movement … That is, we believe, Africa’s future, and our mission is to focus on scientifically sound techniques which, combined with the knowledge and wisdom of African food producers, safeguard our people’s food/life sovereignty.”

Members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa 

Praise from Rockefeller Foundation 

Roy Steiner, managing director of the food initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, told U.S. Right to Know that his foundation did not receive AFSA’s June query until last week, and is working on its response. Like any program, AGRA has had some very successful initiatives and has its share of challenges,” Steiner said. “Overall we think it has been a successful program – in particular building the capacity of African scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers to make decisions for themselves.”

Steiner said he is “particularly proud of the hundreds of soil scientists and plant breeders (with significant representation of women) developing crops suited for the African environment that are building African self-reliance.” As evidence of AGRA’s progress, he pointed to AGRA’s most recent impact report, a report on its seed system program, and an impact report by an AGRA partner, the One Acre Fund.

“As AGRA moves forward,” Steiner said, “I have no doubt that it will continue to embrace more regenerative, circular agricultural approaches and we look forward to partnering with them in also adopting renewable energy into their programs.” 

Seed laws and the ‘800 pound gorilla’   

African groups were not impressed by AGRA’s reporting methods and said they have seen no evidence to change their minds that AGRA’s approach is harming Africa. AGRA’s work on seed laws that protect patented seeds and penalize seed trading “is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa,” SAFCEI’s de Gasparis and Gabriel Manyangadze wrote in an article that ran in several African news outlets last week.

“It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.”

The “corporatization of seed,” they said, undermines indigenous knowledge systems, centralizes control of production systems and disempowers small-scale farmers. “Around the globe, agribusinesses, driven by initiatives like AGRA, have been trying to convince governments and financial institutions that they hold the answer to solve the world’s hunger problems through improved production,” the faith leaders wrote.

“However, this concept has been debunked by food system research and a complete lack of success. The world does not have a food production problem, rather hunger is a result of lack of access and inequality.”

Researcher Timothy Wise, author of the 2020 Tufts report criticizing AGRA, also found fault with AGRA’s recent impact report. The report “provides some data but no convincing evidence of progress” toward AGRA’s top goals, Wise wrote in his review. He said the new report repeats the same problem as previous AGRA reports, using “vague data from undocumented sources.” 

The most objectionable thing in the AGRA reports, Wise wrote, is AGRA’s “obsessive focus” on hybrid maize seed that must be purchased every year. “In one illustrative story, Rwanda proclaims ‘self-sufficiency’ — not in food, but in hybrid maize seed production.” Wise said AGRA and the Gates Foundation are pushing seed privatization laws across Africa.

At the AFSA press conference last week, Wise referred to Bill Gates as the “800 pound gorilla” in the room of food system negotiations. “(Gates) goes where he wants and does what he wants. He is operating behind the scenes to influence policies and laws in African countries with such deep influence and no accountability,” Wise said. “It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.” 

For more information, see our fact sheet on the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa. Stacy Malkan is co-founder and managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. 

New hunger report spotlights controversial UN Food Systems Summit 

Print Email Share Tweet

Hunger and malnourishment increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a sobering United Nations report released Monday. The report is the first comprehensive assessment of hunger since the pandemic struck, and estimates a 25% increase in the number of severely undernourished people across the globe. While no region of the world was spared, Africa was the hardest-hit. The report estimates that more than a third of the continent’s population is undernourished.

“Nearly 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food in 2020”

Hunger and malnutrition have been worsening for over a decade, the report notes, due to conflicts, economic recessions and climate extremes. But the pandemic “continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems,” UN leaders said, warning that we are at a “critical juncture” to transform food systems. They pointed to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) this September, the COP26 on climate change in November, and December’s Nutrition for Growth Summit as crucial events that will shape how food systems develop in the years ahead. The Food Systems Pre-Summit kicks off in Rome on July 26.  

These events are mired in controversy, however. For over a year, the Food Systems Summit has sparked criticism, protests and calls for boycotts from food security experts, UN insiders and hundreds of organizations from Africa and other countries. A chief concern of the critics is the dominant role of large corporations and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, which are pushing a narrow set of approaches for profit-driven agricultural development. African groups described the approach as “business-as-usual, quick-technofix policy prescriptions of the agribusiness agendas.” What is needed instead, these groups said, is a “radical shift from fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture and corporate monopolies of food and agriculture to food sovereignty and agroecology.” 

Sharp criticism of food summit

Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, described the criticisms of the UNFSS in a concise July 14 post in her Food Politics blog. “The criticisms are so severe,” she wrote, “that the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism for relations with the UN is organizing counter events July 25-27.”

From Nestle’s post, “The Summit has been heavily criticized on the grounds that it:

  • Sets agenda themes determined by corporate entities such as The World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation.
  • Favors corporate technological solutions to food system problems.
  • Ignores agroecology, organic farming, and indigenous knowledge.
  • Excludes meaningful representation from people most affected by food system transformation.
  • Promotes corporate control of food systems.
  • Ignores the conflicted interests of its organizers.
  • Is fundamentally undemocratic.”

Many groups have written statements critiquing the UNFSS. U.S. Right to Know is posting these statements, along with reports and news coverage about the food summit controversy and the influence of the Gates Foundation. See, Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa.

High stakes battle over food system governance  

Billions of dollars in public and private investments to improve food systems are at stake through the food summit negotiations, according to Michael Fahkri, the UN rapporteur on the right to food. He and other UN insiders have harshly criticized the summit’s leaders, describing a process that is ignoring human rights, marginalizing civil society and  restructuring the UN process to shift power away from the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) into the hands of a small set of private sector actors.  

“the UN-WEF partnership is helping to establishing ‘stakeholder capitalism’ as a governance model for the entire planet.”

Civil Society Mechanism

The High Level Panel of Experts on food security and nutrition, which advises the CFS, called in 2019 for a paradigm shift away from industrial agricultural and toward agroecological approaches and policies that address social needs and inequality. Rather than follow the direction of its expert panel, however, the UN has allowed what observers describe as an agribusiness takeover of food system negotiations. The 2021 UNFSS was announced alongside a new partnership agreement between the UN and World Economic Forum, the first of its kind. UN Secretary General António Guterres then appointed Agnes Kalibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to lead the food summit.

These moves sparked outrage from hundreds of groups who called for termination of the WEF agreement and asked for Kalibata’s appointment to be revoked over concerns that AGRA “promotes a high input agricultural model is not sustainable beyond constant subsidy, which is drawn from increasingly scarce public resources.” Although Kalibata vowed the summit would consider all stakeholders’ interests, tensions continue to mount.  

In a new report published last week, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) described a problematic new science-policy framework and governance structure that is being proposed through the food summit. If adopted, the plan could marginalize the CFS, its expert panel and civil society groups even further, effectively excluding them from UN decision-making processes. IPES described the situation as “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems. This, in turn, is part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.”

IPES has also raised concerns about a restructuring process now underway to unify the CGIAR — a network of 15 agricultural research centers that have major influence over how food systems develop in the Global South — into “One CGIAR” under a centralized board. The proposed restructuring, also led by a Gates Foundation representative, “fails to equip CGIAR for the urgently needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Transforming African food systems 

Sub-Saharan Africa is ground zero for the debate over food systems transformation. 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. Many African groups say that current market-based agricultural development models driven by external actors, including the Gates Foundation, are worsening the situation.

In March, hundreds of faith groups and people of faith from Africa asked the Gates Foundation to stop promoting “a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people.” The groups wrote their letter “out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

“The same false solutions are being recycled, with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors.”

African Centre for Biodiversity

In a May letter to summit leader Agnes Kalibata, the 50-member African Food Sovereignty Alliance called for a new paradigm of agricultural development on the continent. “Development interventions to date … reinforce indebtedness, inequalities and social exclusion,” the groups wrote. The current models “deepen dependency on destructive, short-sighted and short-lived fossil fuel and capital intensive projects, and global agricultural and forest value chains, which all contribute to creating conditions for extreme vulnerability to shocks.”

In June, the Alliance said their concerns about UNFSS were not addressed and so they will not participate. In a July 6 article in Scientific American, AFSA’s leaders also called on Bill Gates to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.” 

Documents posted earlier this year by USRTK describe how UN dialogues in Africa, held in preparation for the summit, were heavily skewed in favor of policy proposals that benefit private industry. The documents bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The group said in a statement that the summit dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands.” 

A recent historical analysis of African food systems provides further support for view that hunger problems in Africa are rooted in the interference of external forces. The researchers found that “before colonialism, farmers grew a diverse range of food crops, staggered planting for easy labour demands during harvesting, and managed risk in various related ways. But under colonial rule they were coerced into growing export commodities for which they received limited real value.” The authors concluded, “The focus must move from what the developed world dictates to what Africa needs.”

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

Print Email Share Tweet

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

Gates Foundation doubles down on misinformation campaign at Cornell as African leaders call for agroecology 

Print Email Share Tweet

Related reporting: Gates Foundation’s failing green revolution in Africa (7.29.20)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded another $10 million last week to the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign housed at Cornell that trains fellows in Africa and elsewhere to promote and defend genetically engineered foods, crops and agrichemicals. The new grant brings BMGF grants to the group to $22 million.

The PR investment comes at a time when the Gates Foundation is under fire for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that critics say are entrenching farming methods that benefit corporations over people. 

Faith leaders appeal to Gates Foundation 

On September 10, faith leaders in Africa posted an open letter to the Gates Foundation asking it to reassess its grant-making strategies for Africa. 

“While we are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its commitment to overcoming food insecurity, and acknowledging the humanitarian and infrastructural aid provided to the governments of our continent, 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,” says the sign-on letter coordinated by the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).  

The letter cites the Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) for its “highly problematic” support of commercial seed systems controlled by large companies, its support of restructuring seed laws to protect certified seeds and criminalize non-certified seed, and its support of seed dealers who offer narrow advice about corporate products over much-needed public sector extension services. 

Uganda’s largest daily newspaper reported on AGRA’s failing project

“We appeal to the Gates Foundation and AGRA to stop promoting failed technologies and outdated extension methods and start listening to the farmers who are developing appropriate solutions for their contexts,” the faith leaders said.

Despite billions of dollars spent and 14 years of promises, AGRA has failed to achieve its goals of reducing poverty and raising incomes for small farmers, according to a July report False Promises. The research was conducted by a coalition of African and German groups and includes data from a recent white paper published by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute. 

The Gates Foundation has not yet responded to requests for comment for this article but said in an earlier email, “We support organisations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies.”

Disappearing promises of the green revolution 

Launched in 2006 by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, AGRA has long promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in Africa by 2020. But the group quietly removed those goals from its website sometime in the past year. AGRA’s Chief of Staff Andrew Cox said via email that the group has not reduced his ambition but is refining its approaches and its thinking about metrics. He said AGRA will do a full evaluation on its results next year. 

AGRA declined to provide data or answer substantive questions from researchers of the False Promises report, its authors say. Representatives from BIBA Kenya, PELUM Zambia and HOMEF Nigeria sent a letter to Cox Sept. 7 asking for a response to their research findings. Cox responded Sept. 15 with what one researcher described as “basically three pages of PR.” (See full correspondence here including BIBA’s Oct. 7 response.)

“African farmers deserve a substantive response from AGRA,” said the letter to Cox from Anne Maina, Mutketoi Wamunyima and Ngimmo Bassay.  “So do AGRA’s public sector donors, who would seem to be getting a very poor return on their investments. African governments also need to provide a clear accounting for the impacts of their own budget outlays that support Green Revolution programs.”

African governments spend about $1 billion per year on subsidies to support commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Despite the large investments in agricultural productivity gains, hunger has increased thirty percent during the AGRA years, according to the False Promises report.

Gates Foundation investments have a significant influence on how food systems are shaped in Africa, according to a June report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). The group reported that billions of dollars in Gates Foundation grants have incentivized industrial agriculture in Africa and held back investments in more sustainable, equitable food systems.  

“BMGF looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions,” IPES said.

Local producers and short food chains 

The Gates Foundation agricultural development approach of building markets for larger-scale, high-input commodity crops puts it at odds with emerging thinking about how to best deal with the volatile conditions caused by the twin crises of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In September, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it is essential to build more resilient local food systems as the pandemic “has put local food systems at risk of disruptions along the entire food chain.” The report documents pandemic-related challenges and lessons from a global survey conducted in April and May that drew 860 responses. 

“The clear message is that, in order to cope with shocks such as COVID-19, cities with suitable socio-economic and agroclimatic conditions should adopt policies and programmes to empower local producers to grow food, and promote short food chains to enable urban citizens to access food products,” the report concluded. “Cities have to diversify their food supplies and food sources, reinforcing local sources where possible, but without shutting off national and global supplies.”

As the pandemic threatens farming communities already struggling with climate change, Africa is at a crossroads, wrote Million Belay, coordinator of the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, and Timothy Wise, lead researcher of the Tufts analysis of AGRA, in a Sept. 23 op-ed. “Will its people and their governments continue trying to replicate industrial farming models promoted by developed countries? Or will they move boldly into the uncertain future, embracing ecological agriculture?”

Belay and Wise described some good news from recent research; “two of the three AGRA countries that have reduced both the number and share of undernourished people – Ethiopia and Mali – have done so in part due to policies that support ecological agriculture.”

The biggest success story, Mali, saw hunger drop from 14% to 5% since 2006. According to a case study in the False Promises report, “progress came not because of AGRA but because the government and farmers’ organizations actively resisted its implementation,” Belay and Wise wrote, pointing to land and seed laws that guarantee farmers’ rights to choose their crops and farming practices, and government programs that promote not just maize but a wide variety of food crops.

“It’s time for African governments to step back from the failing Green Revolution and chart a new food system that respects local cultures and communities by promoting low-cost, low-input ecological agriculture,” they wrote. 

Doubling down on PR campaign housed at Cornell 

Against this backdrop, the Gates Foundation is doubling down on its investment in the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a public relations campaign launched in 2014 with a Gates grant and promises to “depolarize the debate” around GMOs. With the new $10 million, CAS plans to widen its focus “to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations.” 

But the Cornell Alliance for Science has become a polarizing force and a source of misinformation as it trains fellows around the world to promote and lobby for genetically engineered crops in their home countries, many of them in Africa. 

Numerous academics, food groups and policy experts have called out the group’s inaccurate and misleading messaging. Community groups working to regulate pesticides and biosafety have accused CAS of using bully tactics in Hawaii and exploiting farmers in Africa in its aggressive promotional and lobby campaigns.  

A July 30 article by Mark Lynas, a Cornell visiting fellow who works for CAS, illuminates the controversy over the group’s messaging. Citing a recent meta-analysis on conservation agriculture, Lynas claimed,  “agro-ecology risks harming the poor and worsening gender equality in Africa.” His analysis was widely panned by experts in the field.

Marc Corbeels, the agronomist who authored the meta-analysis, said the article made “sweeping generalizations.” Other academics described Lynas’ article as “really flawed,” “deeply unserious,” “demagogic and non-scientific,” an erroneous conflation that jumps to “wild conclusions,” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific.”

The article should be retracted, said Marci Branski, a former USDA climate change specialist and Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University.

Debate over agroecology heats up

The controversy resurfaced this week over a webinar CAS is hosting Thursday Oct. 1 on the topic of agroecology. Citing concerns that the Cornell-based group is “not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased” debate, two food-system experts withdrew from the webinar earlier this week.

The two scientists said they agreed to participate in the webinar after seeing each other’s names among the panelists; “that was enough for both of us to trust also the organization behind the event,” wrote Pablo Tittonell, PhD, Principal Research Scientist in Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONICET) and Sieglinde Snapp, PhD, Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology at Michigan State University, to panel moderator Joan Conrow, editor of CAS. 

“But reading some of the blogs and opinion pieces issued by the Alliance, the publications by other panelists, learning about the biased and uninformed claims against agroecology, the ideologically charged push for certain technologies, etc. we came to the conclusion that this venue is not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased, constructive and, most importantly, well informed scientific debate,” Tittonell and Snapp wrote to Conrow.

“We therefore withdraw from this debate.” Conrow has not responded to requests for comment.

 The webinar will go forward with Nassib Mugwanya, a 2015 CAS global leadership fellow and doctoral student at North Carolina State University, who has also been accused of making unfair attacks on agroecology. In a 2019 article for the Breakthrough Institute, Mugwanya argued, “traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture.” 

The article reflects typical biotech industry messaging: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article,” the group noted, “are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies.”

With Tittonell and Snapp off the roster at Thursday’s webinar, Mugwanya will be joined by Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, who has ties to pesticide industry front groups, and Frédéric Baudron, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Gates Foundation-funded group. 

Asking for a ‘fair fight’

Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, sees the ramped up PR campaigns as “evidence of desperation” that they “just cannot get it right on the continent.” 

Her group has for years been documenting “the efforts 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.”

The Cornell Alliance for Science should be reigned in, Mayet said in an August webinar about the Gates Foundation’s influence in Africa, “because of the misinformation (and) the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful.” She asked, “Why don’t you engage in a fair fight with us?”

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and reporter for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on public health issues. She is author of the 2007 book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan