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

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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. 

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

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By Stacy Malkan

In his new book on how to avoid a climate disaster, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates discusses his plans to model African food systems upon India’s “green revolution,” in which a plant scientist increased crop yields and saved a billion lives, according to Gates. The obstacle to implementing a similar overhaul in Africa, he asserts, is that most farmers in poor countries don’t have the financial means to buy fertilizers.  

“If we can help poor farmers raise their crop yields, they’ll earn more money and have more to eat, and millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries will be able to get more food and the nutrients they need,” Gates concludes. He doesn’t consider many obvious aspects of the hunger crisis, just as he skips crucial elements of the climate debate, as Bill McKibben points out in the New York Times review of Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. 

Gates fails to mention, for example, that hunger is largely due to poverty and inequality, not scarcity. And he seems unaware that the decades-long “green revolution” push for industrial agriculture in India has left a harsh legacy of harm for both the ecosystem and smallholder farmers, who have been protesting in the streets since last year.   

“Farmer protests in India are writing the Green Revolution’s obituary,” Aniket Aga wrote in Scientific American last month. Decades into the green revolution strategy, “it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition,” Aga writes. “No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model.”

This model — which moves farmers toward ever-larger and less-diverse farming operations that rely on pesticides and climate-harming chemical fertilizers — is one the Gates Foundation has been promoting in Africa for 15 years, over the opposition of African food movements who say the foundation is pushing the priorities of multinational agribusiness corporations to the detriment of their communities.  

Hundreds of civil society groups are protesting the Gates Foundation’s agricultural strategies and its influence over the upcoming UN World Food Summit. Insiders say this leadership is threatening to derail meaningful efforts to transform the food system, at a crucial moment when much of sub-Saharan Africa is reeling from multiple shocks and a growing hunger crisis due to pandemic and climate change conditions. 

All this has gone unnoticed by major media outlets that are rolling out the red carpet for Gates’ book. Here are some of the reasons the critics say Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program is bad for the climate. The foundation has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Related post: Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake the food system 

Ramping up greenhouse gas emissions

Gates is not shy about his passion for synthetic fertilizer, as he explains in this blog about his visit to the Yara fertilizer distribution plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The new plant is the largest of its kind in East Africa. Fertilizer is a “magical invention that can help lift millions of people out of poverty,” Gates writes. “Watching workers fill bags with the tiny white pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was a powerful reminder of how every ounce of fertilizer has the potential to transform lives in Africa.”

Corp Watch describes Yara as “the fertilizer giant causing climate catastrophe.” Yara is Europe’s biggest industrial buyer of natural gas, actively lobbies for fracking, and is a top producer of synthetic fertilizers that scientists say are responsible for worrying increases in emissions of nitrous oxide. The greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. According to a recent Nature paper, nitrous oxide emissions driven largely by agriculture are rising in an increasing feedback loop that is putting us on a worst-case trajectory for climate change.

Gates acknowledges that synthetic fertilizers harm the climate. As a solution, Gates hopes for technological inventions on the horizon, including an experimental project to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to soil. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” 

In the meantime, the key focus of Gates’ green revolution efforts for Africa is expanding the use of synthetic fertilizer with the aim of boosting yields, even though there isn’t any evidence to show that 14 years of these efforts have helped small farmers or the poor, or produced significant yield gains.

Expanding climate-harming monocultures 

The Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion since 2006 to “help drive agricultural transformation” in Africa. The bulk of the funding goes to technical research and efforts to transition African farmers to industrial agricultural methods and increase their access to commercial seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Proponents say these efforts give farmers the choices they need to boost production and lift themselves out of poverty. Critics argue that Gates’ “green revolution” strategies are harming Africa by making ecosystems more fragile, putting farmers into debt, and diverting public resources away from deeper systemic changes needed to confront the climate and hunger crises. 

“The Gates Foundation promotes a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people,” a group of faith leaders from Africa wrote in a letter to the foundation, raising concerns that the foundation’s “support for the expansion of intensive industrial agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.” 

The foundation, they noted, “encourages African farmers to adopt a high input–high output approach that is based on a business model developed in a Western setting” and “puts pressure on farmers to grow just one or a few crops based on commercial high-yielding or genetically modified (GM) seeds.”

Gates’ flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), steers farmers toward maize and other staple crops with the aim of boosting yields. According to AGRA’s operational plan for Uganda (emphasis theirs):

  • Agricultural transformation is defined as a process by which farmers shift from highly diversified, subsistence-oriented production towards more specialized production oriented towards the market or other systems of exchange, involving a greater reliance on input and output delivery systems and increased integration of agriculture with other sectors of the domestic and international economies.

AGRA’s primary focus is programs to increase farmers’ access to commercial seeds and fertilizers to grow maize and a few other crops. This “green revolution” technology package is further supported by $1 billion a year in subsidies from African governments, according to research published last year by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and report by African and German groups

The researchers found no sign of a productivity boom; the data show modest yield gains of 18% for staple crops in AGRA’s target countries, while incomes stagnated and food security worsened, with the number of hungry and undernourished people up 30%. AGRA disputed the research but has not provided detailed reporting of its results over 15 years. An AGRA spokesperson told us a report will be forthcoming in April.

The independent researchers also reported a decline in traditional crops, such as millet, which is climate-resilient and also an important source of micronutrients for millions of people.

The AGRA model imposed on previously relatively diverse Rwanda farming almost certainly undermined its more nutritious and sustainable traditional agricultural cropping patterns,” Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN assistant secretary-general for economic development, wrote in an article describing the research.  The AGRA package, he notes, was “imposed with a heavy hand” in Rwanda, with “the government reportedly banning cultivation of some other staple crops in some areas.”  

Diverting resources from agroecology 

“If global food systems are to become sustainable, input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must become obsolete,” the African faith leaders wrote in their appeal to the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, many experts say a paradigm shift is necessary, away from uniform, monoculture cropping systems toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of industrial agriculture including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation.

The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns against the damaging effects of monocropping, and highlights the importance of agroecology, which the panel said could improve the “sustainability and resilience of agricultural systems by buffering climate extremes, reducing degradation of soils, and reversing unsustainable use of resources; and consequently increase yield without damaging biodiversity.”

Rupa Marya, MD, associate professor of medicine at UCSF, discusses agroecology at the 2021 EcoFarm conference

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization expert panel report on agroecology clearly calls for a shift away from the “green revolution” industrial agriculture model and toward agroecological practices that have been shown to increase the diversity of food crops, reduce costs and build climate resilience. 

But programs to scale up agroecology are starving for funding  as billions in aid and subsidies go to prop up industrial agriculture models. Key barriers holding back investments in agroecology include donor preferences for profitability, scalability and short-term results, according to a 2020 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation funded agricultural development research projects for Africa in recent years were limited to “supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency via targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices, livestock vaccines or reductions in post-harvest losses,” the report said. Only 3% of the projects included elements of agroecological redesign.

The researchers note, “agroecology does not not fit within existing investment modalities. Like many philanthropic givers, the BMGF [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.” 

These preferences weigh heavy in decisions about how research develops for global food systems. The largest recipient of Gates Foundation’s agricultural funding is CGIAR, a consortium of 15 research centers employing thousands of scientists and managing 11 of the world’s most important gene banks. The centers historically focused on developing a narrow set of crops that could be mass produced with the help of chemical inputs. 

In recent years, some CGIAR centers have taken steps toward systemic and rights-based approaches, but a proposed restructuring plan to create “One CGIAR” with a single board and new agenda-setting powers is raising concerns. According to IPES food, the restructuring proposal threatens to “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors,” such as the Gates Foundation, who are “reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.”

The restructuring process led by a Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner,” IPES said, “with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has kicked in another $310 million to CGIAR to “help 300 million smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.” 

Inventing new uses for GMO pesticide crops

The takeaway message of Gates new book is that technological breakthroughs can feed the world and fix the climate, if only we can invest enough resources toward these innovations. The world’s largest pesticide/seed companies are promoting the same theme, rebranding themselves from climate deniers to problem solvers: advances in digital farming, precision agriculture and genetic engineering will reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture and “empower 100 million smallholder farmers” to adapt to climate change, “all by the year 2030,” according to Bayer CropScience.

The Gates Foundation and the chemical industry are “selling the past as innovation in Africa,” argues Timothy Wise, a research fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in a new paper for Tufts GDAE. “The real innovation,” Wise said, “is happening in farmers’ fields as they work with scientists to increase the production of a diversity of food crops, reduce costs, and build climate resilience by adopting agroecological practices.” 

As a harbinger of tech breakthroughs to come, Gates points in his book to the Impossible Burger. In a chapter entitled “How We Grow Things,” Gates describes his satisfaction with the bleeding veggie burger (in which he is a major investor) and his hopes that plant-based burgers and cell-based meats will be major solutions for climate change. 

He’s right, of course, that shifting away from factory-farmed meat is important for the climate. But is the Impossible Burger a sustainable solution, or just a marketable way to turn industrially produced crops into patented food productsAs Anna Lappe explains, Impossible Foods “is going all in on GMO soy,” not only as the burger’s core ingredient but also as the theme of the company’s sustainability branding.  

For 30 years, the chemical industry promised GMO crops would boost yields, reduce pesticides and feed the world sustainably, but it hasn’t turned out that way. As Danny Hakim reported in the New York Times, GMO crops did not produce better yields. The GMO crops also drove up the use of herbicides, especially glyphosate, which is linked to cancer among other health and environmental problems. As weeds became resistant, the industry developed seeds with new chemical tolerances. Bayer, for example, is forging ahead with GMO crops engineered to survive five herbicides.

Mexico recently announced plans to ban GMO corn imports, declaring the crops “undesirable” and “unnecessary.”

In South Africa, one of the few African countries to allow commercial cultivation of GMO crops, more than 85% of maize and soy is now engineered, and most is sprayed with glyphosate. Farmers, civil society groups, political leaders and doctors are raising concerns about rising cancer rates. And food insecurity is rising, too.  South Africa’s experience with GMOs has been “23 years of failures, biodiversity loss and escalating hunger,” according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

The green revolution for Africa, says the group’s founder Mariam Mayet, is a “dead-end” leading to “declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.” 

“It is vital that now, at this pivotal moment in history,” says the African Centre for Biodiversity, “that we shift the trajectory, phasing out industrial agriculture and transition towards a just and ecologically sound agricultural and food system.”  

Stacy Malkan is managing editor and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. Sign up for the Right to Know newsletter for regular updates.

Related: Read about Cargill’s $50 million production facility to genetically engineer stevia, a high-value and sustainably grown crop that many farmers in the Global South depend on.

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

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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