By Phil Bereano

img: S.W. AndersonFrom 2009 to 2011, Bill Gates' foundation spent $478,302,627 to influence African agricultural development. Adding in the value of agricultural grants going to multiple regions and those for 2012, the Foundation's outlay to influence African agriculture is around $1 billion. Of course, Gates is not an African, not a scholar of Africa, not a farmer, and not a development expert. But he is a very rich man, and he knows how he wants to remake the world.

Gates' support for ag development strategies favors industrial, high-tech, capitalist market approaches. In particular, his support for genetically engineered crops as a solution for world hunger is of concern to those of us - in Africa and the U.S. - involved in promoting sustainable, equitable agricultural policies.

First, his technocratic ideology runs counter to the best informed science. The World Bank and the UN funded 400 scientists, over three years, to compile the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Its conclusions in 2009 were diametrically opposed, at both philosophical and practical levels, to those espoused by Gates. It recommended research that "would focus on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems," and it concluded that biotechnology alone will not solve the food needs of Africa.

The IAASTD suggests that rather than pursuing industrial farming models, "agro-ecological" methods provide the most viable, proven, and reliable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change. These include implementing practical scientific research based on traditional ecological approaches, so farmers avoid disrupting the natural carbon, nitrogen and water cycles, as conventional agriculture has done.

Olivier De Shutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, reinforces the IAASTD research. He too concludes that agro-ecological farming has far greater potential for fighting hunger, particularly during economic and climatically uncertain times.

Agroecological practices have consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity. Conversely, the present GM crops, based on industrial agriculture, generally have not increased yields over the long run, despite their increased input costs and dependence. The Union of Concerned Scientists details GM crops' underperformance in their 2009 report, "Failure to Yield."1

Second, Gates funds African front groups whose work with Monsanto and other multinational agricultural corporations directly undermines existing grassroots efforts at improving African agricultural production. Gates has become a stalking horse for corporate proponents promoting industrial agricultural paradigms, which view African hunger simply as a business opportunity. His foundation has referred to the world's poor as presenting "a fast growing consumer market." Referring to the world's poor as "BOP" (the bottom of the pyramid), he insists they must be subsumed into a global capitalist system, one which has done so well to enrich him. His philanthropy is really "philanthrocapitalism."

By and large, Gates' grants do not support locally defined priorities, they do not fit within the holistic approach urged by many development experts, and they do not investigate the long-term effectiveness and risks of genetic modification. The choice of a high-risk, high-tech project over more modest but effective agricultural techniques is problematic, offering no practical solutions for the present and near-future concerns of the people who run small farms.

For example, the Gates Foundation touted a $10 million  grant to Conservation International  in 2012 as "agroecological," an important concept emerging as a touchstone criterion for assessing development assistance. Using the guidelines that Miguel Altieri has laid down, it consists of "broad performance criteria which includes properties of ecological sustainability, food security, economic viability, resource conservation and social equity, as well as increased production. . . . To attain this understanding agriculture must be conceived of as an ecological system as well as a human dominated socio-economic system."2 This goes far beyond the definition used, for example, by the OECD as "the study of the relation of agricultural crops and environment." In other words, in addition to embodying the idea of sustainability, agroecology includes principles of democracy.

However, the Conservation International grant is merely a program of monitoring what is happening on the ground in African agriculture. The Foundation's press release describes it as:

(Providing) tools to ensure that agricultural development does not degrade natural systems and the services they provide, especially for smallholder farmers. It will also fill a critical unmet need for integrating measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near real-time and multi-scale data into an open-access online dashboard that policy makers will be able to freely use and customize to inform smart decision making. The raw data will be fully accessible and synthesized into six simple holistic indicators that communicate diagnostic information about complex agro-ecosystems, such as: availability of clean water, the resilience of crop production to climate variability or the resilience of ecosystem services and livelihoods to changes in the agricultural system.3

This is really a top-down technocratic program, hardly qualifying as agroecological. In fact, while it might be a beneficial activity, it could be used as a perfect illustration of trying to use an appealing label to whitewash its opposite. A Gates official claims that it will be "for decision-makers," but these users appear to be hierarchical elites, not smallholders-who are unlikely to have "an open-access online dashboard" in their fields.

Genetically modified crops are also supported by the Gates Foundation, although they threaten conventional and organic production as well as the autonomy of African producers and nations. In 2002, Emmy Simmons, then-assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, stated that "in four years, enough (genetically engineered) crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent." Biotechnology cannot coexist with agro-ecological techniques and traditional knowledge.

Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety said of the Gates Foundation grant, "(Genetically modified) nitrogen-fixing crops are not the answer to improving the fertility of Africa's soils. African farmers are the last people to be asked about such projects. This often results in the wrong technologies being developed, which many farmers simply cannot afford."

She said farmers need ways to build up resilient soils that are both fertile and adaptable to extreme weather. "We also want our knowledge and skills to be respected and not to have inappropriate solutions imposed on us by distant institutions, charitable bodies or governments," Mayet said.

While successful in his chosen field, Gates has no expertise in the farm field. This is not to say that he and his fellow philanthropists cannot contribute - they certainly can. However, some circumspection and humility would go a long way to heal the rifts they have opened. African farmers never asked to be beaten with the big stick of high-input proprietary technology; doing so continues neo-imperialism and the perpetuation of foreign-imposed African "failure." Africans urge Bill Gates to engage with them in a more broadly consultative, agroecological approach.


Phil Bereano, JD, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and a co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics. This essay is based on work he and other researchers have done for AGRA Watch, a project of Seattle's Community Alliance for Global Justice (







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