Looking in a gift horse's mouth

The persistence of food crises and food price volatility has spawned some false solutions. The most notable of these is the 'New Green Revolution for Africa', launched by the philanthropic foundation established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. As Philip L Bereano and Travis M English reveal, this revolution may not be so green after all.

THE largest 'private charitable operation' in the world today is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, headquartered in our hometown, Seattle, in the United States and distributing about $4 billion each year.  A major thrust of the Foundation, announced in 2006, was to join with the Rockefeller Foundation in creating an 'Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa' (AGRA) which would tackle hunger in Africa by 'work[ing] to achieve a food secure and prosperous Africa through the promotion of rapid, sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers'.

AGRA, according to the Gates Foundation, 'is an Africa-based and African-led effort to develop a thriving agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa'.  Yet large numbers of African farmers and rural community groups in Africa are raising critical concerns about the Foundation's activities and its reliance on high-cost inputs and new technologies. And they have also raised concerns about transparency and lack of opportunities for participation in these processes of decision-making for African agriculture. The following account of the current dynamic is based on recent research on the ground in East Africa as well as web-based content analysis.

The slogan of AGRA's promoters is a 'New Green Revolution for Africa' but this 'Revolution' may not be very 'green' at all.

The original 'Green Revolution' several decades ago was a term used to describe high-technology agricultural development. As described in the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:

'Great increase in production of food grains (especially wheat and rice) that resulted in large part from the introduction into developing countries of new, high-yielding [seed] varieties, beginning in the mid-20th century. Its early dramatic successes were in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. The new varieties require large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to produce their high yields, raising concerns about cost and potentially harmful environmental effects. Poor farmers, unable to afford the fertilisers and pesticides, have often reaped even lower yields with these grains than with the older strains, which were better adapted to local conditions and had some resistance to pests and diseases.'

Old vs. new

The vision of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, who supported the original Green Revolution, to solve hunger focused on the improvement of crop yields; they simply equated hunger to poor food production and relied on an industrial agricultural model, using high-yielding seed varieties (HYVs), chemical fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation and mono-cropping.

In the early stages of the Green Revolution the new technologies proved to be capital-intensive, which was a barrier preventing many small farmers' participation. The 'remedy' for this was a package that included access to credit, training, and smaller packages of inputs. Still, many farmers were unable to sustain themselves in the competitive and capital-intensive environment created by that Green Revolution.

The technologies used in the original Green Revolution resulted in several major negative consequences (see box).

Despite these failures, Bill Gates, in a speech given at the 2009 World Food Prize Symposium held in Iowa in October of 2009, proclaimed, 'The next Green Revolution must be guided by smallholder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.' Yet, when we take a closer look at his new Green Revolution, it is evident that the new looks very much like the old. The focus is on production using the same industrial agricultural model but with a few variations: an expanded role for transnational corporations, and a heavy reliance on a technological approach that did not exist 50 years ago, genetically modified organisms (GMOs - a manipulation of elements within the genome of the crop that would not occur in nature, such as by inserting genes from a completely different species).

There is little reason, therefore, to expect that a 'new' Green Revolution will reduce (much less eliminate) global hunger.

Organisational shell game

While the Gates Foundation works hard to separate itself from AGRA and to make AGRA look as if it is African-led, it is important to note that there is actually very little separation between the two organisations. In fact, AGRA is merely an extension of the Gates Foundation. This is clear from an examination of AGRA's board of directors. Much of the board is made up of members of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); in fact all the final AGRA grant decisions are being made by an informal group of three persons, one from the Gates Foundation, one from the Rockefeller Foundation, and Monty Jones - chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). Given that the CGIAR centres are heavily funded by both Foundations, it is obvious how little true independence AGRA has.

The web of inter-relations between Gates and AGRA, though often denied, when coupled with their indirect relationships with agribusiness, creates a significant lack of transparency about the true operations and benefactors of the new Green Revolution. The claims that AGRA is African-led are not supported by its actual operations despite Kofi Annan being its figurehead. Indeed, a leaked copy of the Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development Strategy 2008-2011 states, 'AGRA is an African face and voice for our work.'

AGRA's website also has some principles which our research shows are of dubious validity:

*  'Our mission is not to advocate for or against the use of genetic engineering.'

*  'AGRA will work with transnational companies if there is a clear benefit to smallholder farmers.Our work with transnational corporations will be fully transparent.'

These statements, we have found, are doublespeak or outright falsities, inconsistent with the claim on the website of the parent Gates Foundation that 'we demand ethical behavior of ourselves'.

Following the money from the Gates Foundation and AGRA reveals their support for GMO research and corporations such as Monsanto (although the Gates Foundation is open about its involvement in GMOs, AGRA refutes having any links to GMOs and neither organisation makes any claims affirming their relationship with Monsanto). The diagram on this page clearly illustrates how the Gates Foundation, AGRA and Monsanto are entangled together. It shows how the Gates Foundation and AGRA have carefully avoided direct contact with Monsanto while many of their grantees have strong relationships with the corporation, some working with Monsanto on projects funded by the Gates Foundation and AGRA:

*    Not all of the work that the Gates Foundation is doing around GMOs is obvious; research into genetically engineered sorghum, bananas, rice, and cassava is being funded through its separate initiative, Grand Challenges in Global Health, under claims of adding nutrition.

*    In addition, the Gates Foundation is also funding organisations that are known for influencing African government policies to allow for the use of GMOs, such as AfricaBio and Africa Harvest Biotech.

*    In a 'revolving door' situation, individuals move among the organisations in the diagram, making the parts function in a coordinated and mutually reinforcing fashion. One of AfricaBio's board members, Jennifer Thomson, is also Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is partnered with Monsanto to work on a project called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) - funded by the Gates Foundation. In another example, Florence Wambugu founded AGRA grantee Africa Harvest Biotech, an active GMO lobbyist group. Formerly Wambugu worked at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) - another Gates grantee - and was trained in bioengineering by Monsanto in the early 1990s when Rob Horsch (now with the Gates Foundation, formerly of Monsanto) directed a project with KARI - funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - to create GM sweet potato. Also, Rajiv Shah, former director of the Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development Programme, was recently drafted into a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy position, and now, just several months later, he is the head of USAID. USAID is linked to many projects of the Gates Foundation's grantees and it has also been, for many decades, the biggest pusher of biotechnology and GMOs for Africa. These are but a few examples that illustrate the fact that the Gates Foundation's money is going to a relatively small number of people.

Thus is woven the web.

When AGRA president, Dr Namanga Ngongi, was asked in Global Health magazine about AGRA's 'dalliance' with Monsanto resulting in 'genetically modified organisms being heaped onto unsuspecting farmers,' he claimed 'If anything, AGRA is counteracting Monsanto as it strives towards supporting the capacity of countries to produce seed using their own natural plant genetic material.' This response glosses over AGRA's support of the Citizen Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA), an organisation that is partnered with the CropLife Foundation on a project that works with Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, and Dow to demonstrate to African small farmers the benefits of herbicide use for controlling weeds. Such activities help open the door for Monsanto to sell its herbicide-resistant seeds.

Further, Ngongi ignores that AGRA grantee TechnoServe, an organisation devoted to helping 'entrepreneurial men and women in poor areas of the developing world', has also received support directly from the Gates Foundation, Cargill, Monsanto and Microsoft (along with some 60 other corporations). Monsanto and Cargill are linked to another AGRA grant recipient Dave Westphal, who was former Vice-President of Cargill, former Monsanto Area Co-Director for Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, former Chief Operating Officer of Monsanto's Holden's Foundation Seeds. As a final example, AGRA grant recipient Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPS), with a goal of disseminating knowledge about 'appropriate farm inputs', distributes free small packets of seed donated by Monsanto (the largest seed company in the world) with every farmer's purchase of fertiliser.

Why is AGRA's and the Gates Foundation's connection to Monsanto so troubling? 'The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa claims to want to promote sustainable farming that will reduce poverty. Its heavy reliance on a corporation that has broken the law, concentrated its power over the market and is the subject of antitrust investigations, and lobbied governments to adopt policies that tilt against sustainable agriculture, shows AGRA to be either naive or dangerous,' remarks Raj Patel, a Fellow at Food First and author of Stuffed and Starved.

Monsanto's history evidences no concern whatsoever for reducing rural poverty or increasing food production and nutrition, the stated goals of the Gates Foundation/AGRA efforts. In fact, Monsanto has already negatively impacted agriculture in African countries. For example, in South Africa in 2009, Monsanto GM maize failed to produce kernels and hundreds of farmers suffered. According to Mariam Mayet, environmental activist and director of the African Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, some farmers suffered up to an 80% crop failure. This was due to under-fertilisation of the seed in the laboratory.  Whereas large-scale farmers that were under contract were compensated by Monsanto, small-scale farmers who had received donated sachets of seeds from Monsanto were not.

When we track the funds from the Gates Foundation through AGRA, it becomes clear that the 'New Green Revolution for Africa' is not guided by local small farmers. Instead, the Gates Foundation granting process is guided by scientists, non-governmental organisations and corporations that are all aligned under an ideology that favours the use of biotechnology and other high-tech inputs in agriculture. The net results of these activities limit farmers' choices. Farmers are being told what to grow, how to grow, and where to sell. A specific model is being powerfully promoted that demands the use of new seeds, chemical inputs, and mechanisation, and fosters reliance on production for export markets instead of for hungry Africans.

Why shouldn't Africa use new technologies to combat hunger?

New technologies do not benefit everyone - some people lose while others gain, some gain a little and others gain a lot.  Despite the dominant ideology that technologies are value-neutral, they actually are imbued with specific human intentions, because they are purposeful interventions into the natural progression of activities. (By definition, they are not acts of God or of Nature.) In class-stratified societies, new technologies embody the values, perspectives, purposes and political/economic objectives of powerful social groups. Because of their size, scale, requirements for capital investment and specialised knowledge, modern technologies are powerful interventions into the natural order.  They tend to be mechanisms by which already powerful groups manifest, extend, and further consolidate their powers. Thus, the prevailing view that a technology is only troublesome when it is 'abused'  (rather than perhaps having inherent negative characteristics) is a form of social mystification, to deflect criticism from the technical activities of the powerful.

That the Gates Foundation, a rich and powerful social actor, has embraced genetic engineering technologies for its ventures into Africa is thus not surprising.  The development of GMOs has not reflected the needs of consumers, smallholder farmers, or the environment but has explicitly been along lines to maximise profits of multinational corporations (such as Monsanto, which holds the patents on over three-quarters of the GMO seeds currently being planted) and reflects the view of the world of the technocratic elements of society - the engineers, businesspeople, and bureaucrats. GMOs embody power differentials in our society.

So, for example, the Foundation has given money to develop drought-tolerant maize. But, as Jos Ngonyo, of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, has pointed out, 'we already have water-efficient maize. It does really well. It's called katumani. It's grown in dry areas and takes only three months to grow before people have food to eat.' High tech, however, is 'where the money is'. Thus, the overall effect is to shift control of the food supply from local people to international entities.

Gates' personal and business life certainly reflects a mode of technological triumphalism - that one can achieve omniscience and perfection through high-tech social interventions. For agriculture in Africa, this leads to replacing a tolerance for variation and diversity (e.g., biodiversity and complex ecosystems) with carefully controlled and limited technical monocultures. Gates apparently believes that hunger is due to insufficient food being produced (although numerous studies have shown that this is not true) and that high tech must be relied on to increase production (with scarcely any attention to the inequities of food distribution resulting from widespread poverty).

Genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods fall squarely within this model, and thus are not really amenable to democratic control by Africans, nor are they environmentally or socially 'sustainable'. High-chemical inputs and mechanisation also fall within this model, but their negative social and environmental impacts are well known. The consequences of the Gates Foundation and AGRA pushing GMOs have not been as well understood. 

Genetic engineering technologies are based on a reductionist view of an organism's genome, simplifying a complicated dynamic reality into a static LEGO-like construction. Yet, the composition of a genome is not determinative of its functions (since, for example, the cells in human eyes are the same as those in the pancreas, yet the eyeball does not make insulin). The location of the various components in the genome, their internal interactions, and the control and moderation by a huge number of proteins circulating in the organism actually determine a cell's functioning.  As a result, scientists do not know all the outcomes when they introduce a new piece of genetic material or rearrange what Nature has already provided.

Despite the real and possibly substantial likelihood of health risks to humans and the environment posed by the production and consumption of GE foods, almost no research is being funded to assess such risks, since it would not be in the interests of industry nor government to do so (since they believe that GE will be the next big economic 'driver'). Although a few independent scientists and technical panels have called for an end to this approach of 'don't look/don't find', there is essentially no adequate regulatory oversight being performed.  When pressed to expand such monitoring and regulation, those behind the technology claim that concerns are groundless; yet no evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of no harm. And the few inconvenient danger signals which have turned up are explained away, 'pooh-poohed', and scientists associated with them have lost research funds and been vilified (such as Arpad Pusztai, author of over 300 peer-reviewed articles, who was dismissed from his position at Rowett Research Institute in Scotland in 1998 when he discovered cell changes in rats fed GE potatoes - despite this research being published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal).

So it is not surprising, for example, that a statement made by participants from 25 African countries (and 10 from other continents) at a conference at Ny‚l‚ni centre in Selengue, Mali, November-December 2007 declared, 'The push for a "new green revolution in Africa", GMOs and other initiatives of the biotech, chemical fertiliser and seed companies have to be stopped.'

The main risks of GE crops

There are many Africans who have articulated the risks presented by GE crops.  These can be seen to fall into a number of categories, although they are in reality all intertwined.

* Risks to human health. Although the biotech industry claims that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has thoroughly evaluated GE foods and found them safe, this is not so.  In 1992, the industry/government group called the Council on Competitiveness, headed by US Vice-President Dan Quayle, announced that the FDA would not specially regulate GE foods because they were 'substantially equivalent' to unmodified varieties (of course, the industry then goes across the street to the patent office and argues that they are completely novel and not like anything else).

Internal FDA documents obtained in the course of a lawsuit reveal that agency scientists vigorously opposed this logic of equivalency, warning that GE foods might create toxins, allergies, nutritional problems and even new diseases that might be difficult to identify.

Only about two dozen published peer-reviewed studies have subsequently appeared; many of these appear to have been rigged, were selective in the evidence pursued, were sponsored by industry, or suffered from poor research design. Clearly the public interest would require that a great deal of health research be conducted.

*   Genetic contamination of African biodiversity by GE crops.

The main food crops in Africa are often indigenous and thus engineered elements can alter the genetic make-up of native plants or disturb the ecological balance in other ways (such as by creating 'superweeds' which are resistant to herbicides). Over 165 examples of such contamination occurred in 2005-07 alone - by pollen flow, the careless escape of GE seeds, etc. - resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Although millions of dollars were paid in damages to other industry sectors, these were largely obtained by corporations powerful enough to force out-of-court settlements. African farmers would not have the financial capability to recover for damages to their crops by suing agribusiness giants such as Monsanto; in fact, even more affluent farmers in Canada and the US have experienced frustration in such attempts.

This sort of contamination appears to be a conscious strategy by the industry and the US government to silence opposition by creating a fait accompli. This was the message delivered by industry consultant Don Westfall of Promar International in an interview in the Toronto Star (9 January 2001) and the challenge voiced, in 2002, by Emmy Simmons, then USAID Assistant Administrator, in Johannesburg at the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development that 'in four years, enough GE crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent'.

* Other impacts on biodiversity. Some studies have indicated that benign or beneficial insects (butterflies, aquatic species) can be adversely affected by eating the pollen or other parts of GE plants, with unknown consequences.  At the other extreme, constant exposure to insecticidal and herbicidal genetic material can lead to Darwinian development of resistance in pest species.

* The economic ramifications of GE crops are enormous. GMOs are protected by patent monopolies, increasingly putting the food supply under the control of a small number of multinational firms. Should GE species, still largely products of nature, even be patentable?

Most of the information on GMOs (admittedly not a large data pool to begin with) is unavailable for public scrutiny, under claims of 'confidential business information'.  In addition, the agencies which might exercise some oversight on biotechnology have experienced a 'revolving door' in which officials of agriculture biotech firms such as Monsanto are appointed to public positions, set lenient policies, and then return to their lucrative corporate perches. The 'revolving door' now opens up to the philanthropic world as well; Rob Horsch is a case in point.

The Precautionary Principle

Most African countries are among the 157 Parties to the UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which, among other things, establishes the policy of using the Precautionary Principle in regard to risk assessment - in other words, 'look before you leap' and don't commercialise any GMO that has not been fully assessed for risks.   The US, Canada, and Australia have refused to join this treaty.

Finally, Africans are aware that the UN food and health agencies and the World Bank sponsored a major 'International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development' (IAASTD) which issued its final report in Johannesburg, South Africa in April 2008.    Among its conclusions were observations that we can 'increase sustainable agricultural production by expanding use of local and formal knowledge' and that the 'assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown.' The report went on to note:

'A problem-oriented approach to biotechnology R&D [research and development] would focus investment on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems. These processes require new kinds of support for the public to critically engage in assessments of the technical, social, political, cultural, gender, legal, environmental and economic impacts of modern biotechnology. Biotechnologies should be used to maintain local expertise and germplasm so that the capacity for further research resides within the local community. Such R&D would put much needed emphasis onto participatory breeding projects and agroecology.'

Notably, Australia, Canada, and the United States dissented from the adoption of this report.

The Gates Foundation is offering its agricultural aid to Africans along the lines advocated by these three rogue states instead of following the approaches subscribed to by the overwhelming majority of Africans. On its website and elsewhere, the Foundation knows how to 'talk the talk':

'Guiding Principle #9: We must be humble and mindful in our actions and words. We seek and heed the counsel of outside voices.

Guiding Principle #10: We treat our grantees as valued partners, and we treat the ultimate beneficiaries of our work with respect.

Guiding Principle #11: Delivering results with the resources we have been given is of the utmost importance - and we seek and share information about those results.'

 But it doesn't seem to 'walk the walk', as we have seen.  We may recall the teaching of Dr Martin Luther King on 4 April 1967, exactly one year before he was killed: 'True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.'

Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington in the United States and an activist with the 20-year-old Washington Biotechnology Action Council. Travis English is a student in the University of Washington's Master's Programme in Planning.

       They are founding members of AGRA Watch, a˙two-year-old˙project of the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice <>.  The objectives of AGRA Watch are: 1) to challenge˙AGRA's promotion of the industrial agricultural development model, 2) to increase awareness of socially and ecologically appropriate agricultural practices suitable to Africa, and 3) to support groups in Africa that share these goals.

The Green Revolution's bitter harvest

* Environmental degradation: The use of chemicals polluted water systems and the land. Heavy use of water caused water tables to drop and reduce the flow of water downstream. Mono-cropping and chemical use caused a reduction in biodiversity.

* Social degradation: Mechanisation resulted in a loss of agricultural jobs and increased unemployment. Decision-making was centralised - farmers were being told what to grow, how to grow, and where to sell their products. This individualistic emphasis led to fragmentation of rural communities. A competitive environment which stresses the individual rather than the whole challenges the sense of community. 

* Farmers and agricultural workers were driven off the land; because of the competitive and capital-intensive nature of the Green Revolution, many farmers relocated to marginal lands that bordered fertile areas. Also, there was massive population relocation to urban areas, increased growth in urban slums, and the transformation of many urban areas into industrial work sites to take advantage of a cheap labour source. 

* Finally, the Green Revolution did not achieve what it set out to do - end hunger. According to a Food First fact sheet, 'Between 1970 and 1990, while the total available food in the developing world rose by 11%, the number of hungry people also rose by 11%. In Latin America the number of hungry people rose by 18%.'

*Third World Resurgence No. 240/241, August-September 2010, pp 44-48