AGRA Watch Challenges Gates Foundation’s Claims to Support Agroecology

On May 14, 2012, Roy Steiner, the Gates Foundation’s director for agricultural development, was interviewed on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate.  In an interview focused on the Gates Foundation’s plans to combat hunger in Africa, Steiner spoke about the Foundation’s commitment to finding sustainable solutions for smallholder farmers, and funding projects supporting agroecological methods. AGRA Watch thought it was important to follow-up on these claims, thus Phil Bereano wrote to Steiner to request more specifics about the Foundation’s funding of projects dedicated to agroecology. In Steiner’s reply, he outlined the Foundation’s various goals for reducing poverty, namely “sustainable productivity growth.” He also supplied us with a specific list of the Foundation’s agroecology projects. Our research team looked more deeply into these projects, and concluded that they do not live up to our definition of agroecology.

Please read Phil Bereano’s letter to Steiner (below), which demonstrates why we feel that “NONE of the projects [Steiner cited] as agroecological are…deserving of that label.” And let us know what you think!  We would love to hear from you – you can email AGRA Watch at this address:

You can find Steiner’s original letter to Phil, as well as quotes from KUOW radio show on CAGJ’s website here:


Dear Roy—

Between vacations and family over the summer, I have not been able to get back to you very promptly.  I apologize for that and would like to continue our discussion further.

I read with great interest your discussion of “sustainability” since it is a concept I have helped develop over several decades in both my teaching and research work.  I am attaching of copy of the keynote address I gave at an international conference in Brazil as part of the run-up to the 1992 Rio EarthSummit. You will see that I am in complete accord with your remarks that the key aspects of true sustainability are not only technocratic (e.g., productivity, etc), but sociopolitical—empowerment and control. The definition does not have clear Aristotelian boundaries, but is an evaluation process to be made on a number of valued criteria.

The term “agroecological” is similar. Our discussion of “agroecological” approaches runs the danger of our apparently agreeing while each of us is defining the concept differently. I’d be interested in your understanding of it; I generally follow the guidelines that Miguel Altieri has laid down, that it “has a 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.” ( 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 my view, in addition to embodying the idea of sustainability, agroecology includes principles of democracy.

So, when a research team from our AGRA Watch project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice investigated the six grants you referred me to, I particularly looked at their embodiment of empowering local individuals and communities, leading to increasing local control. Frankly, my conclusion is that most of them fail to merit the important appellation of “agroecological”.

*N2Africa—This proposal is an example of what we call a “technological fix”—an approach which has no inherent social aspects and is based on the narrow belief that changing a single technological factor will solve a complex social-technical problem.  Of course it would be good if smallholders could get more nitrogen into their soils, but this factor is hardly sufficient by itself to empower them! It is noteworthy that there is no indication at all that any of the 200,000 intended beneficiaries were involved in the design of the program or participate in its management.  Indeed, it appears likely that they will be further manipulated by foreigners during this process. In addition, the end goal of the project appears to be GE cereals; GE clearly violates most of the criteria for “sustainablility.” So I think this grant quite fails even your definition of agroecology.  I urge you not to continue to cite it in this regard.

*Conservation International—This is merely a program of monitoring what is happening on the ground. The Foundation’s press release describes it as “provid[ing] 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.” This top-down technocratic program hardly qualifies as agroecological.  In fact—while it might be a beneficial activity—it could be used as a perfect illustration of trying to use a label to whitewash its opposite.  Your description claims that it will be “for decision-makers,” but these appear to be hierarchical elites, not smallholders who are not likely to have “an open-access online dashboard” in their fields.

* Diversity Trust—This is support for Svalbard, which is not surprising given the Foundation’s increasing involvement in CGIAR. Of course I support preservation of biodiversity, as my several decades of activity within the framework of the CBD testifies; and at my retirement I talked about the heroic and inspiring model of Vavilov and his assistants preserving his seedbank during the 28-month siege of Leningrad. I do not need to tell you that Svalbard is highly controversial (and that Cary Fowler’s reputation among environmentalists has become highly problematic); the controversy is all about this concept of “control” we are focusing on. The actual dynamic of Svalbard is that a huge range of indigenous and adaptable seeds is being collected and preserved and that the multinational biotech and seed companies (i.e., Monsanto) have access to them.  How convenient to provide these corporations and universities research material that they might not otherwise be able to obtain.  And how likely that any of the products they work on will be patented and costly and otherwise not readily available to small farmers. Any idea that an African peasant will have the education and financial resources to make use of the seed bank is absurd.   This project is certainly not agroeciological.

*CARE—This is a microfinance project which has only indirect relationship to agroecology in Africa.  Its goal is to “improve food security and long-term resiliency by implementing and scaling a model which will improve their access to land, water, markets, agricultural training and services, “ in order to ready smallholder women “for additional sustainable agricultural activities, practices and markets.” However, since these women “seldom own the land they cultivate and have little or no control or influence over income and farming decisions in their communities,” it is not clear how small amounts of cash from “women’s Village Savings and Loans’ groups as a means to increase women farmers’ productivity . . . in more equitable agriculture systems” will actually  empower them.  Skepticism certainly seems warranted when you claim that a Board so heavily weighted with proponents/beneficiaries of unsustainable globalization (e.g., Cargill, Coca-Cola, McKinsey, etc) will somehow promote sustainability practices.

*AGRA Soil Health—The mission of AGRA is “to trigger a uniquely African Green Revolution that transforms agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, competitive and sustainable system that assures food security and lifts millions out of poverty.”  You are, of course, aware of the many criticisms we have made of AGRA over the past few years—not the least that its organization and operations are so top-down that it is hard to see it as a champion of agricultural democracy.  “Restoring African soil nutrients through the use of improved soil fertility management practices, training and fertilizer” certainly is a critical part of “build[ing] a sustainable foundation for agricultural growth.”  However, “growth” is not an adequate descriptor of the problem, and “fertilizer” will probably equate with importing more chemicals from Yara rather than improving the use of green manures. In other words, despite these lofty but somewhat vacuous phrases, there is little real information showing that this grant is agroecological.
*GALVMed—As the Foundation well knows from its intimate association with PATH, vaccination programs may or may not meet the criteria of sustainability. Almost $64 million has been given to “scale-up access to livestock vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for resource-poor people,” but it quite unclear what this means.  “Partnering with organizations in developing countries” does NOT “ensure sustainable research, production and delivery of new products to poor livestock keepers.” Pfizer and the UK’s DFID have little by way of track records in promoting sustainable practices.  Agroecology is about actual processes operational in the real world, not stated conclusions.  It is impossible to tell from publicly available information whether this project meets the appropriate criteria; hence, a skeptical posture on our part certainly seems warranted.

In conclusion, Roy, it appears that NONE of the projects you cite as agroecological are ipso facto deserving of that label. We know of many activities in Africa that local groups are engaged in which are, in fact, agroecological.  If the Foundation is truly interested in such approaches (and we see nothing so far to justify such a conclusion on our part) we would be happy to put you in touch with them.  An infusion of merely a few thousand dollars, given with sensitivity and respect for on-the-ground knowledge and leadership, would, indeed, merit the Foundation making such claims.  Until that happens, we must publicly call you on what we think is more propaganda than substance on your part.


Phil Bereano
For the AGRA Watch project of CAGJ


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