AGRA Watch Action Report: Petition signed by over 57,000 delivered to Gates Foundation and ISU

February 15, 2016: Petition calling for halt of GMO banana human trials delivered to Gates Foundation and Iowa State University


Pictured in photo: Emma Shorr, Bill Aal and Phil Bereano of AGRA Watch deliver petitions to Gates Foundation. Photo credit: Jonathan Lee

-See professional photographer Jonathan Lee’s photos on Facebook here.
-See CAGJ’s photos on Facebook here.

Delivering over 57,000 signatures gathered through CREDO Action’s online petition, AGRA Watch and Iowa State University graduate students had a successful simultaneous action on Monday, Feb. 15 at ISU in Ames, Iowa, and at the Gates Foundation in Seattle.  The petition asks the University and the Gates Foundation to cease supporting the transgenic banana study, including human feeding trials, and to change the trajectory for this type of research conducted at public universities. For more information, please read the press release.

In Seattle we delivered the petitions in the form of a prop to represent the 57,000+ signatures on the petition – a box filled with the 1600+ pages of names we received from CREDO – along with the actual file on a thumb-drive. We were pleased that, unlike at past demonstrations, Gates Foundation staff, including the head of media relations, met our delegation, and, while TV news cameras filmed, accepted our prop while we laid out our concerns.

We rallied outside the Foundation for an hour, 3 of us wearing banana costumes, and carrying signs while chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Gates stop funding GMOs!” and “What do we want? Food Sovereignty! When do we want it? Now!”.  We had hoped to share our concerns in-person before the action with Chris Elias, head of Global Development, however he was out of the country, and his staff did not propose an alternate meeting time.

Meanwhile in Iowa, 7 grad students and 1 community member gathered on the steps of Curtiss Hall, home of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to take a group picture before heading inside the Dean’s office (Wendy Wintersteen), and dropping off the petition.

Proving that our work is not being ignored by the biotech industry, the action provoked a lot of interest from GMO advocates.  Through what appears to be a coordinated response, multiple negative comments were made on the AGRA Watch Facebook page, and both CAGJ and AGRA Watch’s Facebook pages received several negative reviews this week. (You can counter these posts by reporting offensive ones, and offering a more favorable review if you feel inspired!) Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor whose ties to Monsanto were recently revealed by the New York Times, wrote a post on his blog Sunday before the action, attacking the students involved in this campaign. Later, a well known troll created two offensive memes with AGRA Watch action photos, and filed a public-records request for one of the ISU students (who recently got her PhD and is teaching), which we consider to be an act of harassment.

Media Round-Up


-Ecologist: Gates Foundation: stop ‘biopirated’ GMO banana feeding trials

-Iowa State Daily: Genetically Modified Bananas Spark Controversy

-Business Insider: A group of scientists plans to pay young women $900 to eat genetically modified bananas

-Des Moines Register: ISU still plans GMO banana trial, despite controversy

-CNBC/AP: Iowa researchers to pay students to eat GMO bananas

-Iowa Farm Bureau: Hypocrisy of the anti-GMO crowd on display at Iowa State

-Iowa Meets Maui Blog: Privileged Students Protest Vitamin A Rich Bananas


-KIRO 7 TV, Seattle, WA interview with CAGJ Director Heather Day (starts at 17:08), and also King 5 TV (link not found).

-KCCI Des Moines TV News: Demonstration planned Monday at ISU over banana research


–Free Speech Radio News, New GM banana bound for Uganda set for human testing at Iowa State. Also aired by Green ACRE Radio and on KBCS 91.3 FM.

-KIRO Radio Jason Rantz Show, Bananas Descend on the Gates Foundation in Protest, interview with Phil Bereano and Chris Feise, AGRA Watch

-KHOI 89.1 Ames, IA Community Radio, DonnaLonna Kitchen Show interview with Gabrielle Roesch, ISU student, (begins at 4:33).

-KOPN 89.5 Columbia, MO Community Radio, Farm & Fiddle interview with Phil Bereano, AGRA Watch, and Rivka Fidel, ISU student (link will be posted).

-WRFG Radio Free Georgia-Atlanta, GA 89.3FM, Just Peace interview with Bill Aal, AGRA Watch and Gabrielle Roesch, ISU graduate student (link will be posted).

AGRA Watch’s February Action at the Gates Foundation


Ames Contact: Hannah Dankbar  515-867-1731
Seattle Contact: Heather Day  206-724-2243
Salk Institute Contact: David Schubert  858-453-4100 x1528

Over 57,000 Express Concern with Human Feeding Trials of GMO Bananas
Simultaneous demonstrations in Ames and Seattle highlight controversy surrounding Gates Foundation-funded Transgenic Banana Study at Iowa State University

Ames, IA and Seattle, WA:  On Monday February 15th, Iowa State University graduate students will deliver 57,309 petition signatures to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at ISU while AGRA Watch members deliver the same petition to the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. (The petitions will be delivered at 9:30am PST and 11:30am CST.) The petition asks the University and the Gates Foundation to cease supporting the transgenic banana study, including human feeding trials, and to change the trajectory for this type of research conducted at public universities.  Petition signatures were collected by ISU graduate students, AGRA Watch and CREDO Action.

With the purported goal of reducing Vitamin A deficiency in Uganda and other parts of the world, genetically modified bananas are enriched with beta carotene. The study examines the extent to which the bananas’ beta carotene is converted to Vitamin A in the body and absorbed by consumers.  The study is funded by the Gates Foundation.

The CREDO petition is a follow-up to a petition launched in 2015 by ISU graduate students who, in partnership with AGRA Watch, collected over 1000 signatures, that were delivered in December. These petitions respond to an email that was sent to the ISU student body in April 2014 inviting young women (ages 18-40) to eat genetically modified bananas in return for $900.

This study is one of the first human feeding trials of a genetically modified product, and there has been no prior animal testing of this product. Thus, ISU students are being asked to be the first to consume a product of unknown safety. The study is not being conducted in a transparent manner, and concerned ISU community members have not been able to receive answers about the research design, risks, nature of the informed consent given by the subjects, and the generalizability of the study.

The safety concern is not limited to students or activists. Dr. David Schubert, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, said, “Beta carotine is chemically related to compounds that are known to cause birth defects and other problems in humans at extremely low levels, and these toxic chemicals are possible if not likely by-products of plants engineered to make large amounts of beta carotene.  Since there is no required safety testing of the banana or any other GMO, doing a feeding trial in people, especially women, should not be allowed.  It is both unethical and immoral, particularly because there are several naturally occurring varieties of banana that are safe and have higher levels of beta carotene than the GM varieties.”

Beyond the possible harm to students, the banana may have negative long-term impacts on Ugandan agriculture.  Many banana varieties serves as staples in Ugandan diets. Ugandans have the right to have access to safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. A coalition of over 100 U.S., African and international organizations expressed concerns in an Open Letter that genetically-modified bananas are not meant to serve such a purpose, and that this crop will have an adverse affect on Ugandan agriculture, food security and food sovereignty.

Bridget Mugambe, a Ugandan campaigner with Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, declared, “What is eluding the Gates Foundation is the existence of diverse alternative sources of Vitamin A rich foods that are easily planted and readily available in Uganda. The need for this Vitamin A rich GM banana is clearly assumed, and may sadly end up destroying a food that is at the very core of our social fabric.”

The demonstrations come on the heels of a widely-reported new critique of the Gates Foundation, commissioned by UK-based Global Justice Now. In the reportentitled “Gated Development”, the organization argues that “big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities.” The report goes on to claim that the foundation creates “a corporate merry-go-round where the [foundation] consistently acts in the interests of corporations”.

Mariam Mayet, Director of African Centre for Biodiversity (South Africa) stated, “We in Africa vehemently oppose the introduction of GM crops plants into our food and farming systems that is being carried out in the name of the public good. Once again we would like to draw attention to the conclusions of the 400 global experts of the IAASTD report, who are under no illusion that the current obsession with yield and productivity (personified in the extreme by GMOs) is a panacea for a more ecologically sustainable and equitable food system.”

“Dangers of the Gates Foundation: Displacing Seeds and Farmers”

other-worlds-logoLast month, Other Worlds, an organization that promotes economic and environmental justice, published the second article of their seven part series on African seed and food sovereignty. The article, titled “Dangers of the Gates Foundation: Displacing Seeds and Farmers,” features information gathered from the founder and director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, and AGRA Watch partner, Mariam Mayet. It discusses the role that the Gates Foundation plays in displacing traditional agricultural practices through investment in a green revolution in Africa.

Investments made by the Gates Foundation, along with those made by the US government, the UK, and the Netherlands have created costly agricultural projects that rely on the products of multinational corporations, and that African farmers can only participate in if the public subsidizes them, which it does. In other words, the Gates Foundation is helping to create a system in which subsidies generate profit for multinational corporations, not farmers. While empowering corporations, the projects that the Gates Foundation invests in have disempowered farmers by allowing these multinational companies to make agricultural production decisions in “laboratories or in far-away board rooms.”

AGRA Watch feels that by giving corporations the power to make agricultural production decisions, the Gates Foundation is displacing the peasant farming systems on which about 80 percent of the population relies for income and food. While they do this, AGRA Watch, Mayet, and many other partners encourage those systems. We encourage systems in which “farmers control their seed systems, are proud of their knowledge systems, share seeds from generation to generation through the age-old practice of exchange where they are self-reliant on a huge diversity of seeds under their control, where women play an important role in production decisions, seed selection, and breeding, and where our local food economies find their roots.” Later in this seven part series, Other Worlds discusses with Mayet how her and the African Centre for Biodiversity are encouraging such systems.

Check back later for our synopses of, and links to the subsequent parts of this seven part series.

Part 1 of Other Worlds’ Seven Part Series on African Seed and Food Sovereignty: We Are the Solution


Photo courtesy of Other Worlds

Earlier this month, Other Worlds, an organization that promotes
economic justice, environmentally sound systems, and meaningful democracy, published the first article of their seven part series on African seed and food sovereignty. The article, “We
Are the Solution: African Women Organize for Land and Seed Sovereignty
,” features information gathered during an interview with Mariama Sonko, a farmer and organizer in the Casamance region of Senegal. Sonko is the National Coordinator of We Are the Solution, a campaign for food sovereignty led by West African women.

The article discusses the discrepancy between the important role that African women play in agriculture, and the minimal control that they have over agriculture. In terms of conserving native seeds, producing and processing agricultural products, and marketing and selling those products, women dominate African agriculture. However, when it comes to land access, land use, and land ownership, female control is extremely limited, and as a result, land is underutilized. We Are the Solution works to raise awareness of this issue and to advocate for more rights for female farmers.

Additionally, the article discusses We Are the Solution’s promotion of agroecology and food sovereignty. The organization facilitates workshops, forums, and community radio broadcasts to encourage the preservation of the environment and biodiversity through the use of domestic resources that are both affordable and accessible.

Along with We Are the Solution, AGRA Watch feels that agroecology and seed and food sovereignty, not the industrial agricultural model pushed by the Gates Foundation, allows for the long-term health of Africans and their environment.

Our next post will cover the second article of this seven-part series, “Dangers of the Gates Foundation: Displacing Seeds and Farmers,” which features the founder and director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, and AGRA Watch partner, Mariam Mayet.

AFSA Calls on African Governments to Embrace Agroecology

Image from the Genetic Literacy Project

At the US Food Sovereignty Alliance Assembly earlier this month, CAGJ activists were inspired by stories of how agroecology is essential for a community to achieve food sovereignty. Jesus Vázquez of Organisation Boricua said, “Food Sovereignty without agroecology is just a slogan, agroecology without food sovereignty is just a science,” speaking of the interconnected nature of the two concepts, and the necessity of simultaneously working towards a food system that embodies both. CAGJ’s belief in agroecology was reinforced a few weeks ago when the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), in which many of our close partners are active, released a powerful new statement on agroecology.

AFSA views agroecology as the antithesis of industrial agriculture systems. It recognizes the holistic nature of agroecological farming practices: i.e. where farming works with nature, builds soil, strengthens knowledge of traditional practices by small-scale family farmers, and increases food sovereignty. ASFA’s statement recognizes the gradual nature of shifting African agriculture away from conventional farming practices towards agroecology. The statement notes that agroecology “is about starting with what’s there now; it’s about building the soil as a living organism and taking advantage of the incredible work of trillions of micro-organisms; it’s about managing pests through natural practices starting with increased biodiversity; and it’s about focusing knowledge developing at the local level.”

AFSA boldly calls on African governments and policy makers to take a number of actions that will ultimately embrace agroecology in both regional and national policy. It asks a crucial question: “Does Africa want to take its farmers down the industrial agriculture route just because there is money on the table?” Or will policy makers  take action towards a sustainable solution?

AGRA Watch supports AFSA’s statement on agroecology in Africa, and views agroecology as the viable, and critically important, alternative to a second Green Revolution on the continent.

Juma and Monsanto

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe published a piece that discussed the connection between Harvard Kennedy School professor, Calestous Juma, and the agrichemical giant, Monsanto. In 2013, Juma, who was a former head of the Cartagena biosafety negotiations and is an outspoken supporter of the use of GMOs in international development, received emails from Monsanto, which made clear the corporation’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers by garnering support from academics.

In the emails to Juma, obtained via a public records request made by the US Right to Know, Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s head of regulatory policy and scientific affairs, suggested topics for potential policy papers, provided a summary of what those papers could say, and even suggested headlines. Monsanto encouraged Juma to write a paper called “Consequences of Rejecting GM crops,” and shortly thereafter, Juma published a paper titled “Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology.” Juma claims that he did not perform new research or change his views for the company, and that he was not paid to publish the paper. Regardless of the effect that Monsanto’s emails had or did not have on Juma, it is unquestionable that the corporation is attempting to influence academics in order gain public support and ultimately increase the profitability of their products.

Gaining support in the public debate is one thing, but doing so by secretly targeting individuals who have been heavily subsidized by the public in establishing their current level of prestige and respect is another. Yet again, the agrichemical industry is using public resources to gain an advantage in the market, and AGRA Watch feels that this is unacceptable.

“Seedy Business”

In a recent reportScreen Shot 2015-10-18 at 5.09.33 PM titled “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” Gary Ruskin, Executive Director of the U.S Right to Know, an organization that works to expose the failures of the corporate food system, outlined 15 things that Big Food is trying to hide from the public. Among other things, the report discusses the agrichemical industry’s history of dishonest behavior; their use of PR tactics similar to those previously used by the tobacco industry; their ability to control politics, science, and farmers with their massive amounts of money; and their ceaseless pursuit of profit at the expense of consumers.

While outlining the things that the agrichemical industry is working hard to conceal, the report also discusses the things that consumers are trying to uncover. It discusses a growing lack of trust among potential consumers, and the resulting potential regulatory policies that could have negative effects on the industry’s profits, such as the mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. The lack of trust also puts the industry in a position remarkably similar to that of the tobacco industry of the 1950s to 1980s. Ruskin describes the similarities between these two industries by saying that each industry is “a powerful and profitable industry facing doubts and questions about the health risks of its products.” He goes on to say that the agrichemical industry’s response to their being in this position has also been similar; they are “creating a strong political and public relations defense, as well as lobbying efforts to turn back any policy or initiative that would curtail their profits.”

It is clear that the agrichemical industry works extremely hard to ensure that their products are viewed in a positive light. However, AGRA Watch and its partners do not trust companies whose business models depend on them concealing their impact on human health and the environment. Ruskin concludes his report by saying, “We have a right and a duty to demand truth. We have the right to know what is in our food, and how it affects our health.” AGRA Watch agrees.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers