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Pushing the agribusiness agenda

Armed with money and influence, the Gates Foundation is seeking to reshape the global landscape of food and farming by relentlessly promoting agribusiness and biotechnology interests. The following is an extract from a report which sheds light on a Foundation initiative aimed at further spreading the message of corporate agriculture.


THIS article examines the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to influence global debate and policy on biotechnology, and the CAS effort to influence African agriculture. Despite its neutral-sounding name, and being embedded in the ostensibly neutral terrain of a prestigious university, CAS in fact serves as a propaganda arm of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – an attempt to legitimise a top-down approach to transform Africa’s agricultural systems in favour of corporate biotechnology.

Over the past decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (hereafter Gates Foundation or BMGF) has emerged as an extremely influential actor in an ever-intensifying battle over the future of food and agriculture. The reach of the Gates Foundation in the global food and agriculture scene is difficult to overstate, with over $375 million distributed by BMGF in grants towards agricultural development in 2019 alone, along with BMGF’s participation in powerful alliances seeking to reshape the trajectory of global governance of the food system.

The continent of Africa – dubbed by the World Bank as ‘the “last frontier” in global food and agricultural markets’ – has been a particular focus of such efforts. BMGF’s main presence in Africa is through AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, founded by BMGF and the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006. Just as the Green Revolution of the 20th century fostered dependency upon commercial seeds, inputs and machinery from the US throughout much of the Global South, true to its name, AGRA has served as a major vehicle for the expansion of corporate agribusiness in Africa. In addition to its contributions to AGRA, the Gates Foundation supports Green Revolution technologies through its Agricultural and Global Development programmes.

While AGRA and other agricultural investment activities of the Gates Foundation have been increasingly subject to analysis and scrutiny, this article examines a lesser-known aspect of BMGF’s strategy: framing the debates and shaping how issues are communicated, as well as fostering a new generation of leadership to carry forward its mission. Funded by BMGF, CAS uses its affiliation with the only Ivy League institution that is a land-grant college to claim scientific neutrality while assiduously promoting communications aligned with agribusiness in its use of fellows, especially those from Africa. In taking a deeper look at the CAS fellowship programme and the types of messaging it propagates, this article exposes the pernicious methods used by the Gates Foundation to influence the communications, narratives and policies regarding agricultural development in Africa and beyond.

Ultimately, CAS represents a complement to AGRA in the Gates Foundation’s effort to sell the benefits of corporate agriculture to policy makers, decision makers, governments and agricultural workers. This article demonstrates that in promoting biotechnology for the industry, BMGF is effectively doing the work of corporations under the veil of philanthropic benevolence.

Initiated in 2017, the research contained within this article tracks the first five years of CAS from 2015-19, compiling and analysing data available on the CAS and BMGF websites, complemented by secondary sources. The objective is to shed light on how CAS functions and what types of messaging it is promoting, in order to situate CAS within the range of strategies employed by the Gates Foundation and within a broader web of powerful actors and initiatives shaping African and global food politics.

CAS and its Global Leadership Fellows

Housed in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Ithaca, New York, CAS was launched in 2014 through a $5.6 million endowment by the Gates Foundation ‘to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally’. According to CAS director Sarah Evanega, CAS aims to ‘depolarise the GMO [genetically modified organism] debate and engage with potential partners who may share common values around poverty reduction and sustainable agriculture, but may not be well informed about the potential biotechnology has for solving major agricultural challenges’. A second grant of $6.4 million in 2017 brought the total contribution of BMGF to CAS to $12 million. BMGF remains the primary funder of CAS to date, while 15 additional institutional and individual contributors of $1,000 or more are listed on the CAS website.

CAS describes its main strategies as: a) establishing a global network; b) training ‘with a purpose’; and c) developing multimedia communications on agricultural biotechnology. These strategies come together through its Global Leadership Fellows Program, a 12-week intensive training course held each year at Cornell bringing together 20-30 young professionals, mainly from the Global South, particularly Africa.

The course includes specialised modules in ‘strategic planning and grassroots organising; personal storytelling and telling stories of science; communicating on biotechnology and emerging technologies; public speaking, media training, and messaging; driving law and policy; fundraising; and more’, as well as an independent study component. The work of the fellows is featured through an active online and social media presence, with frequent updates to the CAS website and Facebook page and circulation of pieces authored by fellows across multiple media outlets. News items on the CAS website also highlight the participation of fellows in a variety of events, underscoring CAS’ influence in global food and agricultural policy spaces. At a January 2020 meeting at the World Bank, for instance, fellows lobbied officials on investment needs for Africa, including genetic engineering and gene editing, and ‘science communication’.

To gain a deeper understanding of the Global Leadership Fellows Program, it is helpful to take a look at both the geographical and institutional backgrounds of its fellows. While the geographical reach of the programme has been broadening, the majority of fellows in 2019 – 60.6% – were of African origin, in keeping with prior years. The 2019 African fellows come from a fairly even spread across four sectors: media/communications, policy/research, entrepreneurial/private, and government/university. The range of sectors covered by the fellowship programme is strategic for CAS in terms of amplifying its power and influence. For instance, universities transform local knowledge and reframe debates through their expertise, while government organisations shape the positions of regulators as well as the language of policies.

Upon examination of the fellows’ institutional affiliations, multiple linkages with BMGF become apparent. Cross-checking the fellows’ affiliations with grant disbursement data provided on the BMGF website, we can see that 34% of all the African fellows from 2015-19 were associated with organisations that received funding from BMGF. Together, organisations connected to the fellows received over $775 million from BMGF between 2006 and 2019. Among these BMGF grantees, three stand out for being connected to multiple rounds of fellows: the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Makerere University of Uganda, and Sokoine University of Agriculture of Tanzania.

Despite the focus on Africa, the majority of the $775 million funding is going to non-African organisations. This is in keeping with a funding pattern that BMGF has been criticised for in the past. A 2014 article in The Guardian cited that of the $669 million granted by BMGF to non-governmental groups for agriculture work, ‘Africa-based groups received just 4%. Over 75% went to organisations based in the US’. Similar trends in BMGF funding patterns have been noted in more recent studies by Community Alliance for Global Justice and Biovision and IPES-Food.

The strong overlap between the groups funded by BMGF for agricultural development and the CAS fellows gives additional meaning to the CAS strategy of building a global network, begging the question, whom does this network serve, and towards what ends? Given these linkages, it comes as little surprise that there are strong parallels between the types of technologies promoted by BMGF through its agricultural investments and the messages coming from CAS and its fellows – many of whom come from BMGF-backed organisations.

In analysing the work put out by CAS and its fellows, a striking pattern emerges of there being a singular focus and message running throughout almost all of it: an uncritical promotion of biotechnology. Furthermore, in a distortion of scientific methodology, this position is not vetted against any diverging ones. As a group of New York State farmers pointed out in a letter to Cornell University, ‘nothing in the materials or programs of “The Alliance for Science” is anything but entirely pro-biotechnology. They are without balance or significant critical evaluation of the range of agricultural systems and technologies that exist in food production today.’

The blatant bias of CAS has similarly been critiqued by members of the Cornell faculty, student body, and broader Cornell and Ithaca community. According to Jonathan Latham of the Ithaca-based Bioscience Resource Project, ‘Of several hundred talks at Cornell sponsored by the Alliance, only one has only ever offered a contrary view. Worse, most of its guests are simply corporate propagandists who have nothing, academically, to offer. For an organisation that claims to be a promoter of debate, that it is a remarkably lop-sided record.’

What adds power to the narratives of CAS is that its messages are not coming from BMGF or from its agribusiness partners directly, but from mostly young African voices that make up its fellowship programme, ostensibly informed by their lived experiences and claimed scientific rigour, given the affiliation with Cornell. This matters in terms of how these messages are received by the public. Communications studies have demonstrated that the public are more likely to be receptive to a message when they believe it has come from independent scientists as opposed to industry. Perhaps this is why CAS goes to great lengths in its publicity materials to distance itself from the biotech industry, despite its well-documented industry links.

A closer look at CAS’ messaging

Having looked into the composition of the CAS fellowship programme, we now examine a widely circulated article authored by 2015 CAS fellow and current CAS Training Team member, Nassib Mugwanya. The article contains a number of elements that reflect common trends in the materials put out by CAS and its fellows, as we explore here.

On 4 February 2019, an article by Mugwanya entitled ‘After Agroecology: Why Traditional Agricultural Practices Can’t Transform African Agriculture’ was published on the website of the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank known for climate change scepticism, critiquing environmental movements, and its attempts to discredit renewable energy. Several days later, the piece was reposted on the CAS website and social media channels and was circulating across numerous other outlets under various titles.

The main thrust of the article is an argument about why agroecology is not a solution for Africa. This reflects a tactic seen in CAS materials not only to equate pro-GMO with ‘pro-science’, but also to paint alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science’, groundless and harmful. Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalisations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies. Here we identify four false narratives included in Mugwanya’s article that are common to Gates Foundation propaganda.

False narrative 1: Agroecology can be characterised as a particular (limited) set of agricultural practices

Among the article’s omissions, and perhaps the most glaring for an article on agroecology, is an actual definition of agroecology. While the author rightly states that there is no universal definition of agroecology, there is no shortage of authoritative sources to draw from, such as the Agroecology Knowledge Hub of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which states: ‘Agroecology is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.’

The closest to a definition readers are offered by the author is that agroecology is a ‘codification of traditional farming practices’ – practices such as intercropping, mulching, and integration of crops and livestock – that the majority of African farmers have long been employing. While the practices cited in the article indeed fit within an agroecological framework, the author reduces agroecology – a dynamic concept and a transdisciplinary science – to the employment of a limited set of practices. A look at FAO’s ‘10 Elements of Agroecology’, which provides an overview of the multiple facets of agroecology, points to Mugwanya’s narrow characterisation of agroecology in his attempt to argue its limitations.

False narrative 2: Agroecology involves a glorification of the past and a rejection of the modern

Related to the point above are multiple references throughout the article indicating that agroecology embraces the past while rejecting the modern. This is another mischaracterisation of agroecology, which by most definitions explicitly integrates traditional knowledge with modern science. According to FAO, for instance, agroecology ‘combin[es] science with the traditional, practical and local knowledge of producers’. This element of agroecology is part of what makes it so powerful and effective across diverse contexts.

It is ironic when Mugwanya claims that ‘We should jettison the arbitrary distinction between traditional and modern’, because agroecology actually does just that by drawing on centuries of farmers’ field-based practices combined with innovative scientific and technological developments to design and sustainably manage food and agricultural systems. In other words, ‘the arbitrary distinction between traditional and modern’ is precisely the false dichotomy rejected by agroecologists that the article serves to reinforce.

False narrative 3: Agroecology is being imposed upon African farmers from outside of Africa

According to Mugwanya, those opposing GMOs in his home country of Uganda are doing so ‘under the influence of international environmental NGOs’. He further asserts that agroecology advocacy in Africa ‘wraps itself in the cloak of anti-colonialism even as the NGOs promoting agroecology are funded primarily by Western, developed-world donors’.

Such statements, however, obscure the reality that peasants, including African peasants, are in fact at the helm of the agroecology movement. This includes the members of the 200 million-strong international peasant movement La Via Campesina, whose global headquarters is in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a presence in 18 African countries. In Mali alone, approximately 15,000 peasants have been trained in agroecology by Via Campesina member CNOP (Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes). These are not the front groups for foreign interests that CAS may be familiar with, but mass movements with long trajectories of struggles and resistance. The same is true for many of the other small farmer, fisher and pastoral organisations associated with the continent-wide Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), whose campaign for 2019-21 is ‘Agroecology for Climate Action’ and for whom agroecology is an ongoing area of work.

Furthermore, while Mugwanya dismissively refers to agroecology bearing a ‘cloak of anti-colonialism’, because some initiatives have been funded by Western donors, many Africa-based food and farming organisations in fact argue that the approach of BMGF – embodied by CAS – is the epitome of neocolonialism. For example, they point to lobbying by BMGF to open up new markets for multinational corporations outside of Africa (mostly in the Global North) through securing African farmers’ dependency on technologies that they have no control over – under a pretext of ‘development’.

False narrative 4: Agroecology will keep farmers locked into poverty and drudgery

Building upon the notion that agroecology and concern over GMOs is coming from outsiders who are out of touch with the realities of African farmers, Mugwanya’s article writes of agroecology ‘return[ing] food production to the hands and backs of so-called peasants’ and keeping farmers ‘bound to the soil and confined to poverty’. He further asserts that ‘proponents of agroecological farming in Africa effectively advocate for the status quo, not transformation. They are proscribing technology and agricultural modernisation in the name of social justice and working within the limits of nature, rather than giving African farmers a plausible pathway out of hunger and poverty.’

Once again, this inaccurately depicts agroecology, a central thrust of which is a wholesale transformation of the food system. AFSA’s ‘Agroecology: The Bold Future of Farming in Africa’ report describes how agroecology ‘reforms food systems to promote better nutrition and health, especially among poor communities; how it diversifies livelihoods and defends the dignity of women farmers; how it enables and empowers us to revive our soils and lands, cultivate relevant crops, advance food sovereignty, and build resilient ecosystems and communities; and how such innovative production systems, based on indigenous knowledge, meet the nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs of Africa’s people’.

Far from a maintenance of the status quo, the agroecological framework being put forward by African farmers themselves addresses the root causes of hunger and poverty while laying out steps for a wholesale transformation of the food system. This is in contrast to biotechnology-based approaches espoused by CAS and BMGF. By focusing on ‘improved crops’ to the exclusion of fundamental issues such as the distribution of resources, fair pricing and the cultural needs of communities, such approaches in fact serve to perpetuate hunger and poverty.

The article is problematic not only because of the points elaborated above; it also contains multiple factual inaccuracies. It states, for instance, that evidence that agroecology ‘can generate yields that rival, or even surpass, those of conventional systems’ is ‘limited to isolated proof-of-concept case studies that provide no direct comparison with conventional production’. This simply is not the case. A growing number of studies show yield increases through agroecology when compared against conventional systems, as documented in the recent High Level Panel of Experts report on agroecology prepared for the UN Committee on World Food Security, although it is true that research remains limited to date.

While more research is merited on the long-term yields of agroecological systems, there is documented evidence that the ‘improved varieties’ of crops promoted by the Gates-funded AGRA over the past decade – the same crops that CAS fellows are promoting – have had modest yield increases at best and in some cases even yield declines. Recent assessment of AGRA’s effectiveness in its 13 priority countries has found AGRA has failed to increase farmer incomes or mitigate food insecurity. In Kenya, where AGRA is headquartered, food insecurity actually increased.

The statement that ‘Basic infrastructure is also an important part of the story but is not even considered by agroecologists’ is another inaccuracy. To the contrary, and unlike many biotechnological approaches, agroecology is grounded in a food systems approach that explicitly includes the elements of ‘environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures and institutions’. Infrastructure is in fact a key component in the types of local, regional and national food systems envisaged in an agroecology framework.

Analysing these four false narratives, the overall message left with readers of Mugwanya’s article can be summed up as follows: Agroecology is being foisted upon unsuspecting African farmers from the outside – by wealthy NGOs that romanticise peasant lifestyles. Claims of the benefits of agroecology are not well grounded in science. What farmers really need is biotech and accompanying technological packages, and agroecology is dangerous and immoral for serving as an impediment to this.

It is important for agroecology advocates in Africa and elsewhere to understand that this is the type of messaging they are up against – packaged to represent the cutting edge of science-based communication.

Case study of a CAS fellow

The narratives described above are an example of the kinds of messages that BMGF and CAS promote through their fellows. To illustrate the complex web of relationships through which BMGF is exerting its influence, we offer a case study of the author of the article, Nassib Mugwanya, because it demonstrates how the academic and career trajectory of a CAS fellow is aligned with the interests of BMGF.

In 2015, Mugwanya joined the first cohort of CAS fellows, and he remains affiliated with CAS as a member of the CAS Training Team as of spring 2020. Born in Kampala, Uganda, Mugwanya completed his undergraduate degree in agriculture at Makerere University in 2010. In 2011 he received a scholarship from University of California-Davis under the USAID-funded Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural extension and education at Makerere University. With an initial interest in extension models such as farmer field schools, over the course of his studies Mugwanya grew increasingly interested in biotechnology and involved in convincing Ugandan farmers of its merits.

In 2014, Mugwanya joined the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) as outreach officer, a position he held through 2019. UBIC is housed under the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO). NARO launched UBIC in September 2013 to serve as a designated reference centre for biotechnology communication in agricultural research.

Mugwanya maintained his position with UBIC while a CAS fellow, enabling him to put the training that he received at CAS to direct practical use in his promotion of GMOs to Ugandan farmers’ associations. This work was – and continues to be – carried out against a backdrop of an intense national debate surrounding GMOs in Uganda involving proposed legislation for the legalisation and regulation of GMOs in the country. Both UBIC and CAS have been deeply engaged in these activities from a pro-GMO perspective.

Mugwanya has thus served as a key figure in a coordinated effort to sway public opinion in favour of GMOs in Uganda. It bears emphasising that Uganda has been a major target of the Gates Foundation, with $36 million granted to agriculture-related organisations and initiatives there, including NARO and NaCRRI, between 2003 and 2014. It also bears emphasising that each of the major organisations Mugwanya was affiliated with through 2019 – Makerere University, UC Davis, Cornell University and UBIC – is a recipient of Gates funding, underscoring that he is part of an extensive BMGF-funded network of organisations dedicated to transforming knowledge about GMOs.

Through his fellowship and ongoing engagement with CAS, Mugwanya has refined a particular narrative that can be seen throughout much of his work – that GMOs are a panacea for the hunger and poverty faced by African farming communities, and that those who critique GMOs are ‘anti-science’ and standing in the way of life-saving solutions. Such a narrative, and a particular zeal for discrediting agroecology and food sovereignty activism, is reflected in Mugwanya’s works such as ‘Your ideology, not GMOs, could be hurting the hungry’, which targets AFSA, and the article discussed above, ‘Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture’, arguing that ‘agroecology is a dead end for Africa’.

Mugwanya describes his passion as ‘communicating science in a way that empowers the ordinary farmer’. His communications, however, are strikingly similar to those of the biotech industry, for instance in his assertion that ‘the current mainstream scientific consensus [on GMOs] is rock solid’, even though this is simply not true. When questioned in an interview about allegations of CAS disseminating corporate propaganda, Mugwanya claimed that ‘all a farmer needs is a solution to the problem, not the debate. I have chosen to promote any scientific solution out there that could solve farmers’ problems. If that means being a propagandist, I am unapologetic about it!’

In 2018, Mugwanya became a fellow of the Breakthrough Institute and in 2019 he left UBIC to pursue a doctoral degree through an AgBioFEWS (Agricultural Biotechnology in Our Evolving Food, Energy, and Water Systems) fellowship at North Carolina State University. Notably, North Carolina State University is yet another recipient of BMGF funding for projects focused on biotechnology in Africa.

This case study illustrates how CAS is nurturing an elite body of purported science experts to become regulators in institutions creating policies that facilitate the expansion of corporate biotechnology in Africa. Furthermore, the fact that nearly every major institute shaping Mugwanya’s education and career has been funded by BMGF illustrates that the foundation has strategically inserted itself in key institutions across a variety of sectors, both inside and outside Africa, to increase the acceptability of its desired policy ends.

Conclusion

Through its funding for CAS, BMGF is seeking to shape public opinion in favour of adopting GMOs and corporate agriculture. CAS is building a new generation of leaders to carry out BMGF’s mission of spreading corporate biotechnology across the Global South, particularly Africa. A key communications strategy of CAS is to promote narratives in which biotechnology is equated with ‘science’ and critique of biotechnology is equated with being ‘anti-science’.

Furthermore, as is reflected in the work of Mugwanya, CAS seeks to discredit both the concept of agroecology and the movements and researchers promoting it. These efforts are coming at a time when agroecology has been receiving increasing recognition and making unprecedented advances on the global stage: from the International Forum for Agroecology at Nyéléni held in Mali in 2015, which brought together social movements throughout the world towards a common agenda for agroecology, to FAO’s Global Dialogue on Agroecology from 2014-18 in the form of two international and six regional symposia involving more than 1,400 participants from 170 countries, to agroecology being a key item on the agenda at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security in 2019, extending into 2020.

That the attacks on agroecology by CAS are coming at the same time that there is a mounting global scientific consensus around the merits of agroecology is no coincidence. Studies have demonstrated that perceived scientific consensus is a key factor in influencing public support on a given issue and that this tends to encourage counter-efforts around ‘the “manufacture of doubt” by political and vested interests’.  As momentum continues to build around agroecology, its advocates can be certain that further smear campaigns and other attempts to manufacture doubt will continue. It is hoped that this article can be instructive in this light.

It is important to look at CAS not in isolation, but to understand it as part of a broader set of efforts being employed by BMGF and as part of a large web of actors and initiatives shaping the politics of food and agriculture. Among the most significant of these is a Global Food Systems Summit being planned for 2021 that could shift the power in global governance away from the relatively democratic UN Committee on World Food Security towards more closed spaces dominated by agribusiness interests, as indicated by the summit’s sponsorship by the World Economic Forum. The special envoy of this summit is none other than Agnes Kalibata, president of AGRA, whose appointment to this post has been opposed by more than 500 food and agricultural organisations.

It is also important to take a deeper look at the relationship between BMGF and Cornell University. Along with the multiple linkages between CAS and BMGF detailed throughout this article, there are additional associations between BMGF and Cornell, with Cornell receiving over $226 million from BMGF for a variety of agricultural development-related initiatives since 2009. We are in full agreement with Jonathan Latham in his statement that ‘It is appropriate on many levels to critique the deceptive nature of the Cornell Alliance for Science, but equally culpable is a university that gives them a home.’ We therefore call upon Cornell and its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that houses CAS to have an open assessment of CAS and its relationship to academic goals. We also urge the many members of Cornell faculty and students who oppose CAS to be vocal in their dissent and encourage activist networks to support them in doing so.

Finally, while this article demonstrates that movements for agroecology and food sovereignty have our work cut out for us in the face of disinformation campaigns backed by powerful interests, we must also remember that the reason these campaigns exist is that we are advancing. We are forging on-the-ground alternatives with tangible results – increasingly validated by a growing body of science – while influencing both public opinion and public policy. And industry is taking notice and responding. Perhaps our next line of order lies in developing robust communication strategies of our own to effectively counter the vastly misleading claims of entities like CAS while proactively amplifying the voices of our movements.                                  

The above is extracted from the report ‘Messengers of Gates’ Agenda: A Case Study of the Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program’. The report was published in August 2020 by AGRA Watch, a campaign of Community Alliance for Global Justice, a Seattle, USA-based organisation dedicated to strengthening the global food sovereignty movement through popular education and mobilisation. The full report, including illustrations, footnotes and appendices, is available at www.cagj.org/agra-watch/media/

*Third World Resurgence No. 345/346, 2020, pp 10-15


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