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

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Planning documents for the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit shed new light on the agenda behind the controversial food summit that hundreds of farmers’ and human rights groups are boycotting. The groups say agribusiness interests and elite foundations are dominating the process to push through an agenda that would enable the exploitation of global food systems, and especially Africa. 

The documents, including a background paper prepared for summit dialogues and a draft policy brief for the summit, bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), who provided the documents to U.S. Right to Know.

The dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands,” ACB said in a statement.

Radical shift

A background paper prepared by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and partner groups for a regional dialogue on African food systems provides details about the plans underway. The document notes that it was issued “without formal editing and in English only owing to late submission.”

A “radical transformation shift is required,” the paper said, to move Africa “from current doldrums of significant importation of food from outside Africa.”  The paper recounts the dire and worsening situation in Africa where 256 million people are suffering from hunger, and more than half the population in parts of Eastern Africa are food insecure. The Covid 19 pandemic is exacerbating inequity and exposing the vulnerability of Africa’s food system.

These dynamics are creating an imperative for African governments to create an “enabling environment through improved policies and investments in agricultural public goods, scale up digital solutions for agriculture, and develop innovative financing schemes through public-private partnerships,” the paper said.  

“It is also time to put the investments where they are most needed; for example, African governments channeling millions of dollars in public support to climate-smart agriculture investments … and, strengthening use of big data to drive smarter farm-level decisions on water management, fertilizer use, deploying drought-resistant crop varieties and accessing markets.” 

This agenda aligns perfectly with the plans of the agrichemical industry, the Gates Foundation and its main agricultural development program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which encourages African countries to pass business-friendly policies and scale up markets for patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other industrial inputs they say are necessary to boost food production. These groups say new technologies under development and “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture are the path forward.  

The plans proposed in the documents are a “predictable recycling” of the “same false solutions … with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors,” ACB said in its statement. 

“The aims are not about transforming global relations with the well being of Africans and our ecological systems at the centre, but rather to entrench Africa firmly into global relations and developmental norms defined through colonialism and neoliberal globalisation.”

The ‘New Oil’

Parts of the UN background paper read like a sales pitch for investors and agrichemical industry products, but without providing full disclosure of the problems these products sometimes cause. 

“Economies that in the last four decades prospered in Africa have done so through the exploitation of mineral wealth, especially oil and gas locally dubbed as ‘black gold,’” the paper explains. “Now, the continent is in motion with [a] rapidly fast transforming agricultural and agribusiness sector that is rapidly causing excitement as well as [a] central focus for investors and investment prioritization to shift to the ‘new oil’ set to drive the continent and offer the US$1 trillion by 2030.” 

A section titled “the promise of digital and biotechnologies and the transformation of food systems,” discusses “the significant potential for capturing large economic, social and environmental payoffs from the use of biotechnology products … In West Africa, for instance, farmers can benefit significantly from the adoption of Bt cotton.” 

The paper does not reference the failed Bt cotton experiment in Burkina Faso, the first country in Africa to adopt a large-scale genetically engineered crop for small farmers. Monsanto’s Bt cotton resisted insects and provided good yields, but could not deliver the same high quality as the native variety, and the country abandoned the GM crop.  

The Burkina Faso story illustrates a “little-known quandary faced by genetic engineering,” Reuters reported. “For Burkina Faso’s cotton growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. For Monsanto, whose $13.5 billion in revenues in 2016 were more than Burkina Faso’s GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.”

review of 20 years of data on Bt cotton in India published last year found the cotton was a poor indicator of yield trends and although it initially reduced the need for pesticides, “farmers now spend more on pesticides today than before the introduction of Bt.”

‘One Africa voice’ 

“Rebuilding the food systems of the world will … be conditional on wide scale deployment of relevant technologies and innovations,” according to a draft policy brief created for the summit. The document describes two webinars and an online discussion that aim to forge “One Africa Voice” toward the food summit for “key game changes needed to strengthen African agricultural research and development.”   

The process was convened independently of the summit by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the National Agricultural Research Systems and other research and policy groups. African food movements have not been involved in the dialogue, Mayet said. 

Keys to transforming the food system, according to the policy brief, include generating “effective demand for science, technology and innovation” from smallholder farmers, and encouraging African governments to invest more resources into agricultural research “and its products i.e. technologies and innovations.” 

The document notes “a need to devote more attention to the collection of data and development of capacities for analysis showing the return” on agricultural research for development and to “equitable policy formulation and implementation, ie, policies for enforcing property rights, including intellectual property rights, rewarding farmers for ecosystem services, ensuring safe and healthy diets at affordable prices.”

The dialogue “seems to represent another legitimating space for elite-consensus building which will then be presented at the UN Food Systems Summit as the ‘voice of Africa’ … However, such a voice will be far from that of the ordinary African working person,” ACB said.  “Instead, it reflects the priorities of development experts aligned to the modernist, technology-driven visions of change and transformation, biotechnology companies, agribusiness, and the neoliberal, global development agenda.”

“Africa must question the meanings of productivity, and the social relations in which smallholder farmers could genuinely achieve greater productivity in relation to economic wellbeing and social and ecological justice.”

One CGIAR

The policy battles converging at the 2021 Food Systems Summit threaten “to force-feed the failed industrial food system to the public sector and world agriculture, binding governments to a corporate agenda that marginalizes farmers, civil society, social movements and agroecology,” according to a February 2020 report from the ETC Group that described the dynamics in play around the summit. 

One key battle concerns the future of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 agricultural research centers with over 10,000 scientists and technicians on its payroll and nearly 800,000 crop varieties in its 11 gene banks. A Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation are heading up a proposed restructuring plan to consolidate the network into “One CGIAR” with a single board with new agenda-setting powers.

The proposed restructuring, according to a July letter from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, would “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors – many of whom are reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.” 

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

Many experts are saying a paradigm shift is necessary away from industrial agriculture and toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of the current industrial model, including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation. 

In 2019, a high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition for the UN recommends transitioning to diversified food systems, addressing power inequalities in food systems, and investing in research systems that support agroecology as the way forward. 

Documents 

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development 4 March 2021, Brazzaville, Congo Background Paper, ECA, AUC, FAO, AUDA-NEPAD, WEP, UNICEF, IFAD, AfDB, Akademiya2063, RUFORUM (2021)  

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems (agenda item 9), Thursday March 4, UN Economic and Social Council

Policy Brief, Strengthening African Agricultural Research and Development Towards an Improved Africa Food System, “One Africa Voice” towards the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, FARA, Sub Regional Research Organizations, NARS, AFAAS, AGRA, FANRPAN

ACB Reaction to the Regional Dialogue on African Food Systems, which took place at the Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, 4 March 2021

Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake our food systems

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updated March 4

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on its efforts to transform food systems in Africa, with investments that are “intended to help millions of small farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” A growing chorus of critics say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies — based on the “green revolution” model of industrial expansion — are outdated, harmful and impeding the transformative changes necessary to feed the world and fix the climate.

The battle has been brewing for more than a decade as food sovereignty movements in Africa have resisted the push for chemical-intensive agriculture and the patented seeds proponents say are necessary to provide farmers with choices and boost food production.

A better model, the food movements say, can be found in ecological agriculture projects that are increasing productivity with lower costs and higher incomes for farmers. A high level panel of experts for the United Nations has called for a paradigm shift away from unsustainable industrial agriculture and toward agroecological practices they say can produce a diversity of food crops while also building climate resilience.

The debate is heading for a showdown at the 2021 UN World Food Summit. Rather than following the advice of their own expert panel, the UN appears to be organizing a corporate agribusiness power play led by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations and the World Economic Forum (WEF).  Over 500 civil society groups are protesting the Summit’s direction and the appointment of Agnes Kailibata, president of Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), as Special Envoy in charge of strategic direction. These groups want the UN to withdraw from the UN-WEF partnership they say is “helping to establishing ‘stakeholder capitalism’ as a governance model for the entire planet.”

In a pointed letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres last February, 176 organizations from 83 countries demanded he revoke Kalibata’s appointment and abandon the “green revolution” model of industrial agribusiness expansion. AGRA’s finance-intensive, fossil-fuel based agricultural strategies, they said, are “not sustainable beyond constant subsidy.” Here is an excerpt from the letter: 

In March, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism – a coalition of more than 500 civil society groups with more than 300 million members – told The Guardian they would boycott the summit and set up a parallel meeting.  “We cannot jump on a train that is heading in the wrong direction. We are questioning the summit’s legitimacy. We sent a letter last year to the secretary general about our concerns. It was not answered. We sent another last month, which has also not been answered,” said Sofía Monsalve Suárez, head of Fian International.  “The summit appears extremely biased in favor of the same actors who have been responsible for the food crisis.”

In January, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri, a law professor at the University of Oregon, wrote an appeal to AGRA’s Kalibata describing his serious concerns about the Summit’s direction.

Fakhri explained his frustration in two video interviews:  “It’s that civil society and human rights was at first excluded and then brought in and marginalized,” Fakri said. “It took us a good almost year just to get human rights on the agenda. For the Food Systems Summit that’s coming out of the UN Secretary General’s office, it took us a year to explain, educate and convince the Summit leadership that human rights matters.”

Hear Professor Michael Fakhri explain what’s at stake at the UN World Food Summit and why food systems are a major problem and also key solution for climate change.

In a series of articles starting today, U.S. Right to Know will examine Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation’s plans to remake our food system.

Why are we focusing on Bill Gates? Gates has an extraordinary amount of power over our food systems, and he is using it.  Gates is the largest owner of farmland in the United States. He is also one of the world’s leading investors in biotechnology companies that patent life and food. The Gates Foundation is exerting major influence over how food systems develop in the Global South, and over global political negotiations and research agendas that impact what food we grow and eat.

Related post: Gates Foundation’s plans to remake food systems will harm the climate

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U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. We are working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten the integrity of our food system, our environment and our health.