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.

Mark Lynas’ inaccurate, deceptive promotions for the agrichemical agenda

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Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for genetically engineered foods and pesticides who makes inaccurate claims about those products from his perch at the Gates Foundation-funded Cornell Alliance for Science. Housed at Cornell University since 2014, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign that trains spokespeople and creates networks of influence, particularly in African countries, to promote acceptance of GMOs and agrichemicals. 

Scientists, food experts say Lynas is wrong on science

Scientists and food policy experts have criticized Lynas for making inaccurate and unscientific statements in his efforts to promote agribusiness interests. As one example, academics panned a July 2020 article Lynas wrote for Cornell Alliance for Science claiming agroecology “risks harming the poor.” Critics described Lynas’ article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper” and a “really flawed analysis” that “erroneously conflates conservation ag with agroecology and then makes wild conclusions.”

The agronomist Marc Corbeels, whose paper Lynas purported to describe in the article, said Lynas made “sweeping generalizations.” Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University, called for a retraction; “the right thing to do would be to withdraw your very flawed piece that confuses basic elements of agricultural strategies,” Taylor tweeted to Lynas. He described the article as “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be ‘scientific’.”  

More critiques from scientists and policy experts about Lynas’ work (emphases ours):

  • “I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of (Lynas’) statements are false,” wrote David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune.
  • “Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE,” wrote Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists. “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.” 
  • Lynas’ claims about the certainty of GMO safety are “unscientific, illogical and absurd,” according to Belinda Martineau, PhD, a genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (see letter to NYT and Biotech Salon).
  • In a review of Lynas’ book Seeds of Science, the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone described the book as an “amateurish rehash of common industry talking points.” 
  • “The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, former director Food First, in the Huffington Post.
  • Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization,wrote Timothy A. Wise, former director of research at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.
  • Lynas’ narrative is demonstrably false,” according to a 2018 press release from the African Centre for Biodiversity, a South-Africa based group. 
  • “Mark Lynas’ claims display deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt. You should ignore him,” tweeted Pete Myers, PhD, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org.

‘Manipulative, misleading and unethical’ tactics 

Africa-based groups say Lynas has repeatedly misrepresented facts to promote a political agenda. According to a December 2018 report by the African Center for Biodiversity, Lynas and the Cornell Alliance for Science used the images of African farmers without their knowledge and consent, exploiting the images in misleading ways to claim farmers need GMOs.

Lynas used this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, out of context and without her permission.

As one example, Lynas posted this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, without permission and out of context, suggesting she is a victim of “global injustice.” Mrs. R is in fact a successful farmer who champions agroecological practices and makes a good living, according to the ACBio report. She asked Lynas to remove her image, but it remains on his twitter feed. ACBio said in its report that Lynas’ tactics “crossed an ethical red line and must cease.”  

The food sovereignty group also said in a press release that Lynas has a “history of mischief-making in Tanzania” for the agricultural biotech industry lobby. “His visits to the country are well organized by the lobby, using platforms such as the regular meetings of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), where the media are in attendance to report on his talks. His attacks have principally been directed at the country’s biosafety regulations, particularly its precautionary approach and strict liability provisions.”

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA), a coalition representing 35 farmer and consumer groups across Africa, has also accused Lynas of promoting “false promises, misrepresentation, and alternative facts.” In a 2018 article, they described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science

Another example of inaccurate reporting by Lynas is his 2017 article for the Cornell Alliance for Science attacking the World Health Organization’s cancer agency for reporting glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Lynas claimed the expert panel report was a “witch hunt” and an “obvious perversion of both science and natural justice,” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion.” He claimed glyphosate is the “most benign chemical in world farming.” 

A fact check by U.S. Right to Know found that Lynas made the same misleading and erroneous arguments and relied on the same two flawed sources as a blog posted a month earlier by the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help defend glyphosate and other agrichemical products. 

In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas not only relied on industry arguments and sources, but also ignored substantial evidence, widely reported in the media, that Monsanto manipulated the science and regulatory reviews on glyphosate for decades using covert tactics including ghostwriting studies and articles, killing studies, pushing dubious science, attacking scientists and strong-arming regulatory agencies in order to protect its profits from glyphosate-based products. 

Promoted by, tied to pesticide industry propaganda network

Agrichemical companies and their public relations operatives frequently promote Mark Lynas and his work. See for example Monsanto’s website, many promotional tweets by pesticide industry trade groups, lobby groups, pro-industry academics and writers, and various Monsanto employees, and the dozens of Lynas’ articles promoted by Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.

Lynas and Cornell Alliance for Science also collaborate with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s lobbying and propaganda network.

Advises Monsanto partner group Sense About Science

A confidential Monsanto PR plan dated February 2015 suggested Sense About Science as a group that could help lead the industry’s response in the media to discredit the WHO cancer report about glyphosate. Lynas serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science. The Intercept has reported in 2016 that “Sense About Science does not always disclose when its sources on controversial matters are scientists with ties to the industries under examination,” and “is known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm.” Sense About Science partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who has been described by journalists as a “chemical industry public relations writer.” 

Related: Monsanto relied on these “partners” to attack top cancer scientists

Aligned with climate science skeptic to launch pro-fracking, pro-nuke, GMO “movement”

Lynas calls himself a co-founder of the “movement” of “ecomodernism,” a corporate-aligned strain of “environmentalism” that the British writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The eco-modernists promote fracking, nuclear power and agrichemical products as ecological solutions. According to eco-modernist leaders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, energy technologies favored by the oil billionaire Koch brothers “are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.” 

At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist in the UK who slashed funding for efforts to prepare the country for global warming when he was the environment secretary. The same month, Paterson spoke at Cornell Alliance for Science, where he promoted GMOs in a hyperbolic speech filled with unsupportable claims, and accused environmentalists of allowing children to die in Africa. “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” touted a headline reporting on Paterson’s Cornell speech from the  American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto was paying to defend its products. 

Mark Lynas background

Lynas authored several books on climate change (one of which was recognized by the Royal Society) before he attracted worldwide attention with his “conversion” from an anti-GMO activist to a promoter of the technology with a widely-promoted 2013 speech at Oxford that critics have described as misleading. Later that year Lynas became a fellow at Cornell University Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and began working for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign developed in 2014 to promote GMOs with funding from the Gates Foundation.

See: Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?

Lynas identified himself as the “political director” for Cornell Alliance for Science in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. The Cornell Alliance for Science does not explain what its political agenda is, but the group’s messaging and goals closely track the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda: to increase acceptance of genetically engineered crops and pesticides around the world, particularly in Africa.

Mysterious Lynas PR push, and leaked EuropaBio memo

The massive media coverage of Lynas’ pro-GMO conversion in 2013 raised suspicions that an industry PR campaign was helping to elevate him behind the scenes. A leaked 2011 memo from an industry PR firm – describing plans to recruit high profile “ambassadors” to lobby for GMO acceptance – heightened suspicions of industry backing because the document specifically named Lynas. He has said the group never approached him.

According to a Guardian report, EuropaBio, a trade group whose members include Monsanto and Bayer, planned to recruit PR ambassadors to help decision makers “rethink Europe’s position on GM crops.” The ambassadors would not be paid directly but would receive travel expenses and “dedicated communications support” from industry funding. The PR firm’s operative rep claimed to “have interest from” Lynas, among others, in the ambassador role. Lynas denied having any contact with them. “I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked,” he told the Guardian.

Gates Foundation, GMOs & Monsanto

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science with $12 million in grants, has been criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies that favor corporate agribusiness agendas. A 2014 analysis from the research group GRAIN found that the Gates Foundation spent most of its agricultural development funds “to feed the poor in Africa” — nearly $3 billion spent over a decade — to fund scientists and researchers in wealthy nations. The money also helps buy political influence across Africa, GRAIN reported. A 2016 report by the advocacy group Global Justice Now concluded that the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategies are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.”

The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago when Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s former head of international development joined the foundation’s agricultural development leadership team. Lynas’ new book “Seeds of Science” spends a chapter (“The True History of Monsanto”) trying to explain some of the corporation’s past sins and lauding Rob Horsch at length. It spends another chapter (“Africa: Let Them Eat Organic Baby Corn”) arguing that Africans need agrichemical industry products to feed themselves.

Criticisms of the Gates Foundation’s colonialist approach to Africa

  • Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa, statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 5/7/2018
  • Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states?“Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 1/15/2016
  • Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, 2015 report (page 48).
  • Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence, 2017
  • How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa, by Alex Park, Mother Jones, 1/10/2014
  • Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 3/23/2015
  • Gates Foundation is spearheading neoliberal plunder of African agriculture, by Colin Todhunter, The Ecologist, 1/21/2016
  • How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?GRAIN report, 2014
  • Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet, 3/24/2016

GMOs 2.0: Is Synthetic Biology Heading to a Food or Drink Near You?

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Old school stevia.

Old school stevia plant made by nature.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

By Stacy Malkan

Our culture is smitten with the notion that technology can save us – or at least create great business opportunities! Cargill, for example, is working on a new food technology that mimics stevia, a sugar substitute derived from plant leaves, for the “exploding sports nutrition market.”

Cargill’s new product, EverSweet, uses genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar molecules to mimic the properties of stevia, with no need for the plant itself.

It was developed using synthetic biology (or “synbio” for short), a new form of genetic engineering that involves changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources – a process sometimes referred to as GMOs 2.0.

On June 1, U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for EverSweet with a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation. Eventually it could be used in “everything from dairy to tabletop sweeteners and alcoholic beverages, but low or zero calorie beverages are the sweet spot,” according to Food Navigator.

And so begins the next new food technology revolution: corporations racing to move food production from the land to the lab without laws or regulations in place that require scientific assessments or transparency.

How will they sell synthetic biology to consumers?

A big challenge facing synthetic biology is that today’s consumers want fresh natural foods with simple clear labels – what Food Business News dubbed the “trend of the year” last year.

“Why would we want synbio foods?” Eve Turrow Paul, a writer and corporate brand advisor, asked rhetorically in The Huffington Post. “Well, a few reasons. Number one on the list is climate change.”

Climate change is the number one reason for synthetic biology? What about capturing the exploding sports nutrition market?

Therein lies the PR challenge facing new food technologies: how to position food products created with strange-sounding lab techniques for the purposes of patents and profits as something safe that actually benefits consumers.

The largest agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies got together in San Francisco in 2014 to discuss this PR challenge.

Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, who attended the meeting, described it as “an alarming insight into the synthetic biology industry’s process of creating a sugar-coated media narrative to confuse the public, ignore the risks, and claim the mantle of ‘sustainability’ for potentially profitable new synthetic biology products.”

PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”

They recommended focusing the media on stories of hope and promise, capturing public emotion, and making food activists “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Targeting transparency

Somebody was listening. The story about Cargill’s big stevia opportunity didn’t mention genetic engineering or synthetic biology, but did describe “fermentation as a path.” It ended with a promise that Cargill has nothing to hide about how the ingredients are made and will clearly and accurately label products.

“We have targeted this space in a completely transparent manner,” said Steve Fabro, Cargill global programs marketing manager.

The new ingredient coincides with big changes at Cargill. After two years of declining profits, America’s largest private company is repositioning itself “to satisfy consumers in Western markets who are shying away from the mainstream food brands that rely on low-cost, commoditized ingredients that have been the specialty of companies like Cargill,” reported Jacob Bunge in the Wall Street Journal.

Consumers “want to know what’s in their food, who made it, what kind of company is it, are they ethical, how do they treat animals?” Cargill Chief Executive David MacLennan told Bunge.

With synthetic biology ingredients, that could prove to be a challenge.

When asked exactly how they plan to label EverSweet, Cargill communications lead Kelly Sheehan responded via email, 

“Consumers should be able to tell the difference on a label between stevia from leaf and steviol glycosides produced through fermentation. Stevia from leaf in the US is currently labeled as ‘stevia leaf extract.’ EverSweet will be labeled in the US as ‘steviol glycosides’ or ‘Reb M and Reb D.’ In the EU the expectation is EverSweet would receive a modified E number to differentiate the two products.”

 Sheehan added, “Cargill is committed to transparency and sharing product information at Cargill.com from ‘stevia leaf extract’ to ‘non-GMO stevia leaf extract.’”

Confusing? Perhaps, but labeling decisions may be left up to the companies. As with first-generation GMOs, labeling is not required in the U.S. (although Vermont will require GMO labeling starting July 1 unless Congress intervenes) and companies are free to market their products as “natural” (although FDA is reviewing use of that term). There are no safety standards and no testing requirements for foods developed with synthetic biology.

This lax system pleases the companies eager to patent new food technologies.

As Perls described the synthetic biology PR meeting, “A clear theme at the meeting was that the fewer government regulations the better, and industry self-regulation is best. There was a general consensus in the room that the public should not be concerned about a lack of data on safety; however, the internal and self-funded corporate studies are proprietary and cannot be shared with the public.”

Where have we heard this story before?

Proprietary information, patents, lack of transparency and industry self-scrutiny have been the hallmarks of first-generation GMOs – and the fuel for growing consumer distrust and demands for transparency that have caught the food industry off guard.

The corporations that profit from traditional GMOs – primarily Monsanto, Dow and other big chemical-seed companies – have responded to the backlash as big corporations often do: by throwing huge amounts of money at PR operations to attack critics and spin their products as necessary to feed the world.

The marketing promises have failed to materialize. A May 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that GMO crops had changed the rate of increase in yields, and no clear benefits for small, impoverished farms in developing countries.

Nevertheless, GMO proponents claim, as Bill Gates did in a Wall Street Journal interview, that Africans will starve unless they embrace climate-friendly, vitamin-enriched GMO crops. Gates neglected to mention that these crops still don’t exist after 20 years of trials and promises.

Instead, most genetically engineered crops are herbicide-tolerant crops that are raising concerns about health problems linked to chemical exposures. These crops have increased sales of chemicals owned by the same corporations that own the patents for GMO seeds – an excellent profit model, but one that is turning out to be not so great for health and ecology.

The promise of synthetic biology

The same sorts of promises that failed to materialize in 20 years of GMO crops are fueling the buzz around next-generation genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology techniques “could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming,” reported Josie Garthwaite in The Atlantic.

While proponents focus on possible future benefits, skeptics are raising concerns about risks and unintended consequences. With no pre-market safety assessments for synthetic biology foods, environmental and health impacts are largely unknown, but critics say there is one area in which the dangers are already apparent: economic damage to indigenous farmers as lab-grown compounds replace field-grown crops. Farmers in Paraguay and Kenya, for example, depend on stevia crops.

“By competing with poor farmers and misleading consumers about the origins of its ingredients, EverSweet and other examples of synthetic biology are generating bitterness at both ends of the product chain,” wrote Jim Thomas and Silvia Rabiero of The ETC Group in Project Syndicate.

The path forward for synthetic biology

As battle lines get drawn on the new food frontier, some difficult questions arise. How can we ensure that innovations in agriculture benefit society and consumers? How can new food technologies developed to capture markets, patents and corporate profits ever prioritize sustainability, food security and climate change solutions?

It’s going to take more than marketing slogans, and the clock is ticking to figure it out as new technologies race forward.

As Adele Peters reported in Fast Company, a new gene morphing technology called CRISPR, which makes it “possible to quickly and easily edit DNA,” is coming to a supermarket near you.

“If editing a single gene might have taken years with older techniques, now it can happen in a matter of days with a single grad student,” Peters reported.

What could possibly go wrong?

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that a CRISPR mushroom will not be subject to regulation.

On June 1, scientists announced the start of a 10-year project that aims to synthetically create an entire human genome. The project is called Human Genome Project – Write, “because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life,” reported Andrew Pollack in The New York Times.

On June 8, the National Academy of Sciences released a report about “gene drives,” a new type of genetic engineering that can spread gene modifications throughout an entire population of organisms, permanently altering a species.

Gene drives “are not ready to be released into the environment,” NAS said in its press release calling for “more research and robust assessment.” Unfortunately, the NAS report failed to articulate a precautionary regulatory framework that would protect people and the environment.

Could synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives have benefits for society? Possibly yes. But will they? And what are the risks?

If corporations are allowed to deploy genetic engineering technologies for commercial gain with no government oversight, no independent scientific assessments, and no transparency, benefits to society will be left off the menu and consumers will be in the dark about what we’re eating and feeding our families.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry research group. She also does consulting work with Friends of the Earth. Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan

What Bill Gates Isn’t Telling You About GMOs

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Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know:

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

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

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

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

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

Is Gates right?

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

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

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

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

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

Facts on the ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propaganda watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

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

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

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

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

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

Public science for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The case for an honest conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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