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

Print Email Share Tweet

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“We appeal to the Gates Foundation and AGRA to stop promoting failed technologies and outdated extension methods and start listening to the farmers who are developing appropriate solutions for their contexts,” the faith leaders said.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

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

Print Email Share Tweet

New research from the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute finds the billion-dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is not living up to its promises 

A longer version of this article ran August 14, 2020 in The Ecologist

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the key findings he reported:   

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

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

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

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

High public cost, low transparency 

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

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

Integration and scale: Transforming the livelihoods and lives of smallholder farmers in Africa

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

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

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

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

Africa-based groups: solutions lie with African people 

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

“For years we have documented the efforts by the likes of AGRA to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead to: declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The South Africa-based research and advocacy organization has published more than two-dozen papers since 2007 warning about the risks and problems of the AGRA model. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

AGRA’s shifting promises

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

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

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

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

Changing course 

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

Resources for more information: 

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

More information

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

Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know