Interview with AGRA Watch Member Phil Bereano

by Matt Styslinger, a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project, for WorldWatch Institute

Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. He is on the roster of experts for the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, a participant in the UN’s Codex Alimentarius processes, and co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium.

Why does a technology like genetic engineering (GE) need an active and outspoken proponent of ethics like yourself?

Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Photo credit: Phil Bereano)

I deal with social ethics: issues of equity, justice, fairness, and democracy. Frankly, GE fails when measured against most of these values. GE, like all high-techs, is inherently anti-democratic. Computers, for example, can be democratic in their usage because anybody can buy into it in a consumer society. But they’re not democratic in terms of development, which is under the control of a very small number of people. Similarly, GE is under the control of small numbers of highly educated people and incredibly wealthy organizations.

While most people believe that GE is too complicated for them to understand, the ethical and social issues that come up in a democratic society have little to do with the technical stuff; the basis of these issues can be easily understood. However, the technological elite hasn’t felt any obligation to present materials in a way that invites public participation, and regulatory agencies have often been opposed to transparency or are captives of the industries they are supposedly overseeing—this is certainly true of the FDA, USDA/APHIS, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, EPA.

What ethical issues are associated with GE in agriculture?

GE has been presented in a way that attempts to gain public acceptance for it, but none of the GE technologies have, in any sustained fashion, increased food production or decreased world hunger. However, they’ve certainly increased funding for the biotechnology scientists and the profits for the Monsantos of the world.

“Golden Rice”—with enhanced levels of vitamin A—while touted by GE proponents as an example of GE benefits, has not reduced blindness at all in the Third World and, in fact, is highly unlikely to do so because of the huge quantities of Golden Rice a kid would have to eat. And he or she still may not be getting a balanced diet with the other nutrients needed to make use of the vitamin A.

There’s a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it’s used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex—for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad PusztaiDr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik [Editor’s Note: These are leading international scientists who were criticized by biotechnology companies and other scientists for raising health and environmental concerns about genetically modified crops.] I think these examples indicate a profound set of ethical issues surrounding the professional functioning of geneticists and academic and industry biologists.

You have argued that this technology poses risks to the world’s smallholder farmers. Why?

It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. “Sustainability” doesn’t just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations—otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations.

Back to the example of Golden Rice. Vandana Shiva found that in one village in India, there were 350 plants growing nearby that had been routinely eaten and that provided vitamin A or its precursors. Under industrial agricultural models, however, these were defined as “weeds,” and farmers were encouraged to plow them under and plant cotton instead. Locals no longer have access to the foods that used to provide them with vitamin A, and blindness increased. Instead of understanding that agro-ecological approaches could minimize blindness by preserving access to indigenous diets, Golden Rice has been offered as a “high-tech miracle” way to overcome this situation; the high-tech mindset tries to solve problems brought on largely by technologies through the application of more technologies of higher complexity.

Suddenly, we have a system of consolidation where one dominant multinational corporation, Monsanto, is seeking to obtain majority control of the world’s agricultural plant germplasm, rather than sustaining the resilient, decentralized system for germplasm protection and utilization in rural and indigenous communities that has fed us well for millennia.

In your opinion, what sorts of agricultural innovations should major donors be funding to eradicate hunger and improve food security in both developing and developed countries?

Donors should be funding agro-ecological approaches. The Gates Foundation’s grants are usually quite large: over $100,000 [Grand Challenges in Global Health Program award size]. This is too much for small village cooperatives in Africa that could utilize $5,000 really well. I know people who teach at agricultural schools in Tanzania or work with ag cooperatives in Kenya, and they can’t get adequate funding. Big donors are undermining huge numbers of local initiatives to increase food security and protect biodiversity when they exclude small-scale projects in favor of industrial ones that actually have consequences counter to such goals.

How does the promotion of GMO crops affect global food security and public health in developing countries?

The World Bank and UN agencies did a major study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that high-tech approaches aren’t likely to answer the food needs of the future. Other, lower-cost, approaches—in particular what’s becoming known as “agro-ecological” approaches—are far more promising. The reason is simple: Third World farmers can’t afford an industrial-ag approach to farming—family farms in the U.S. often can’t! This is why the first Green Revolution didn’t reduce world hunger. There is more than enough food being produced in the world today to adequately feed every man, woman, and child and have leftovers. People go hungry because they can’t afford food, not because we can’t produce enough. And this will be true for decades in the future.

Our AGRA Watch group put out a press release recently criticizing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its investments in Monsanto. The high-tech approach is not the right way to move toward food security and sustainability, but it is the approach the Gates Foundation is favoring. The Foundation has indicated that it thinks there are too many small farmers in Africa, and knows that its policies will lead to many farmers having to leave their land—euphemistically referred to as “land mobility.”

But people have been leaving the land in Africa and around the world for a long time. What’s different today?

Well, this is what happened during the first Green Revolution. The larger farmers can afford the mechanization, and the smaller ones get wiped out. Cities are growing exponentially in developing countries, and becoming ungovernable hotbeds of unemployment and crime. Nairobi doesn’t need more people coming in from the countryside looking for jobs. This poses a threat to public health, while the monoculture of the farms is a threat to food security.

You are closely involved with the international negotiations to govern genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Can you tell us the current status of those talks?

Phil Bereano has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

We have the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, now with 160 member countries—which doesn’t include the U.S., Canada, or Australia, the major producers of GMOs, because they don’t like the fact that we were able to get language about international regulation of this technology into the Protocol. Member countries are having their fifth Meeting of the Parties (MOP5) in Nagoya, Japan, in October. Biosafety legislation has been passed in various countries, which is helping developing countries build capacity to deal with the oversight and regulation of this technology. But, if it is weak, it may be providing an entrance for GE [genetically engineered] crops.

As one example, I’ve been working over the past six years as an NGO delegate to Protocol meetings, trying to craft an international regime of legal liability for damages caused by GMOs. Hundreds of incidents of damage have already occurred and been documented. There should be a finished liability regime presented for consideration at the Protocol meeting this Fall.

I’ve also been involved in a UN Agency called the Codex Alimentarius, a collaboration of the UN’s World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which deals with international food laws and regulations. There’s been a 15-year struggle to get international guidelines for GE food labeling, which has been rigorously opposed by the U.S. and some of its allies. I’ll be in attendance at a working group meeting in Brussels in November that will try to resolve some of the issues in the current document, and there will be an annual meeting of the Codex Labeling Committee in May in Quebec City. There’s a decent chance that the negotiations will be resolved by the meeting in May, and some final international guidelines on labeling GE foods will be able to be adopted.

Since the U.S. is the largest producer of GMOs, do you think these decisions will affect domestic trends?

I don’t know how long the U.S. can stay isolated from these world trends. It’s encouraging that in two or three legal cases recently, U.S. courts have required the government and the industry to do actual environmental impact assessments of GE crops, and other court decisions have imposed monetary damages for GE contamination of fields of conventional crops. But there’s no independent regulatory oversight in the U.S. whatsoever; the agencies merely accept the industry’s conclusions that there are no problems with the GE crop variety.

The Codex Alimentarius unanimously—including the U.S. and Canada delegations—adopted a set of principles for doing risk assessments for GE foods. The problem is that they’re just guidelines, and no country has to adopt them, so we don’t know whether they are having an impact. Codex no longer asks governments to inform it of adoptions, since countries never did so when the organization had such a rule. Certainly the U.S. has not adopted assessment procedures such as those urged by the Codex.

How does the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety address the potential risks associated with GMOs?

This treaty provides for countries to impose a requirement of “advanced informed agreement (AIA)” before receiving imports of GMOs, and it outlines general principles and methodology for doing a risk assessment on them for the country to decide whether or not to agree. Every sovereign country has the right to control what crosses its borders. But we need the Protocol because countries that have joined the World Trade Organization have given up the right to control imports in certain circumstances. The Protocol says despite that, it’s okay for governments to have some regulation without it being deemed a “barrier to trade.”

The WTO is not an organ of the UN. How WTO rules and regulations, the UN’s Codex, and the Cartagena Protocol mesh with each other is not clear. The only linkage between them is that in 1995, the WTO decided that the rules of a few specifically named international agencies would be reference points for trade disputes, and one of them was the Codex. So in theory, the Codex guidelines on risk assessments for GE foods or on their labeling would protect countries against being “sued” in the dispute mechanisms of the WTO. The problem is that the Codex only covers foods, and a lot of GMOs are not foods, like cotton. So that’s why we need the Cartagena Protocol, legally speaking. Also, weaker countries need something that they can refer to when they’re under pressure from Monsanto, U.S. trade representatives, U.S. ambassadors, and others to accept GMOs. Wealthy developed countries such as Switzerland and Norway have these rules in place, and perhaps don’t really need the Protocol as much. But most countries in the world are not as powerful, and they do need the strength of numbers provided by the Protocol.

How effective has the Protocol been?

The Cartagena Protocol is an unprecedented treaty on a new technology. It’s one of the first international environmental treaties and is an outcome of the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. What you have is a treaty that falls within the environmental ministry in most countries. The problem is that sometimes the other ministries in a government don’t see eye-to-eye—the trade ministry might be pushing to adopt GMOs, or the Agricultural Minister might have learned all about GE while studying at a land grant university in the U.S. and has accepted what she or he was told there, that GE is a great idea. So it’s very hard to predict what’s going to come out. It’s dependent on a lot of political factors that may have nothing to do with the substance of the matter. Civil society around the world is mobilizing around these issues—the only way toward a democratic and equitable future.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.


AGRA Watch Press Release

August 25th, 2010

Travis English, AGRA Watch
(206) 335-4405
Brenda Biddle, The Evergreen State College & AGRA Watch
(360) 878-7833

Both will profit at expense of small-scale African farmers

Seattle, WA – Farmers and civil society organizations around the world are outraged by the recent discovery of further connections between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and agribusiness titan Monsanto. Last week, a financial website published the Gates Foundation’s investment portfolio, including 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock with an estimated worth of $23.1 million purchased in the second quarter of 2010 (see the filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission). This marks a substantial increase from its previous holdings, valued at just over $360,000 (see the Foundation’s 2008 990 Form).

“The Foundation’s direct investment in Monsanto is problematic on two primary levels,” said Dr. Phil Bereano, University of Washington Professor Emeritus and recognized expert on genetic engineering. “First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests.”

Monsanto has already negatively impacted agriculture in African countries. For example, in South Africa in 2009, Monsanto’s genetically modified maize failed to produce kernels and hundreds of farmers were devastated. According to Mariam Mayet, environmental attorney and director of the Africa Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, some farmers suffered up to an 80% crop failure. While Monsanto compensated the large-scale farmers to whom it directly sold the faulty product, it gave nothing to the small-scale farmers to whom it had handed out free sachets of seeds. “When the economic power of Gates is coupled with the irresponsibility of Monsanto, the outlook for African smallholders is not very promising,” said Mayet. Monsanto’s aggressive patenting practices have also monopolized control over seed in ways that deny farmers control over their own harvest, going so far as to sue—and bankrupt—farmers for “patent infringement.”

News of the Foundation’s recent Monsanto investment has confirmed the misgivings of many farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates in Africa, among them the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, who commented, “We have long suspected that the founders of AGRA—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—had a long and more intimate affair with Monsanto.” Indeed, according to Travis English, researcher with AGRA Watch, “The Foundation’s ownership of Monsanto stock is emblematic of a deeper, more long-standing involvement with the corporation, particularly in Africa.” In 2008, AGRA Watch, a project of the Seattle-based organization Community Alliance for Global Justice, uncovered many linkages between the Foundation’s grantees and Monsanto. For example, some grantees (in particular about 70% of grantees in Kenya) of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)—considered by the Foundation to be its “African face”—work directly with Monsanto on agricultural development projects. Other prominent links include high-level Foundation staff members who were once senior officials for Monsanto, such as Rob Horsch, formerly Monsanto Vice President of International Development Partnerships and current Senior Program Officer of the Gates Agricultural Development Program.

Transnational corporations like Monsanto have been key collaborators with the Foundation and AGRA’s grantees in promoting the spread of industrial agriculture on the continent. This model of production relies on expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and herbicides. Though this package represents enticing market development opportunities for the private sector, many civil society organizations contend it will lead to further displacement of farmers from the land, an actual increase in hunger, and migration to already swollen cities unable to provide employment opportunities. In the words of a representative from the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, “AGRA is poison for our farming systems and livelihoods. Under the philanthropic banner of greening agriculture, AGRA will eventually eat away what little is left of sustainable small-scale farming in Africa.”

A 2008 report initiated by the World Bank and the UN, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), promotes alternative solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty that emphasize their social and economic roots. The IAASTD concluded that small-scale agroecological farming is more suitable for the third world than the industrial agricultural model favored by Gates and Monsanto. In a summary of the key findings of IAASTD, the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) emphasizes the report’s warning that “continued reliance on simplistic technological fixes—including transgenic crops—will not reduce persistent hunger and poverty and could exacerbate environmental problems and worsen social inequity.” Furthermore, PANNA explains, “The Assessment’s 21 key findings suggest that small-scale agroecological farming may offer one of the best means to feed the hungry while protecting the planet.”

The Gates Foundation has been challenged in the past for its questionable investments; in 2007, the L.A. Times exposed the Foundation for investing in its own grantees and for its “holdings in many companies that have failed tests of social responsibility because of environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights, or unethical practices.” The Times chastised the Foundation for what it called “blind-eye investing,” with at least 41% of its assets invested in “companies that countered the foundation’s charitable goals or socially-concerned philosophy.”

Although the Foundation announced it would reassess its practices, it decided to retain them. As reported by the L.A. Times, chief executive of the Foundation Patty Stonesifer defended their investments, stating, “It would be naïve…to think that changing the foundation’s investment policy could stop the human suffering blamed on the practices of companies in which it invests billions of dollars.” This decision is in direct contradiction to the Foundation’s official “Investment Philosophy”, which, according to its website, “defined areas in which the endowment will not invest, such as companies whose profit model is centrally tied to corporate activity that [Bill and Melinda] find egregious. This is why the endowment does not invest in tobacco stocks.”

More recently, the Foundation has come under fire in its own hometown. This week, 250 Seattle residents sent postcards expressing their concern that the Foundation’s approach to agricultural development, rather than reducing hunger as pledged, would instead “increase farmer debt, enrich agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, degrade the environment, and dispossess small farmers.” In addition to demanding that the Foundation instead fund “socially and ecologically appropriate practices determined locally by African farmers and scientists” and support African food sovereignty, they urged the Foundation to cut all ties to Monsanto and the biotechnology industry.

AGRA Watch, a program of Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, supports African initiatives and programs that foster farmers’ self-determination and food sovereignty. AGRA Watch also supports public engagement in fighting genetic engineering and exploitative agricultural policies, and demands transparency and accountability on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AGRA.

A Really Green “Green Revolution”?

In the news…

From New York Times: “Who is steering this fear and global paranoia about the G.M. cotton and all these G.M. crops?” said Hans P. Binswanger-Mkhize, a South African agriculture consultant. “Show us where the corpses are — the corpses of earthworms, the corpses of bees, the corpses of antelopes and the corpses of humans. Nobody has yet ever shown us a corpse.” Unless we have corpses–an rather extreme measure of failure, for sure–we are unable to suggest that GMOs might be detrimental to health, community, environment, and livelihoods? This article offers a mainstream perspective that we encounter all too often–the urgency of need in the Global South due to insufficiencies and population growth. We are thus asked to put aside histories, experiences, and questions, and promote a new Green Revolution as an answer to (rather than a cause of) hunger.

From Inter-Press Service: “A new Green Revolution that is truly green is needed to prevent efforts to eradicate hunger colliding with climate change goals, environmentalists say.” A must-read article that discusses the inability of industrial agricultural systems to persist, particularly in tropical environments, in light of climate change. This counters the previous article by encouraging us to see the Global North’s urgent need to learn from the Global South’s agricultural systems, practices, and preservation of biodiversity.

From GRAIN: “From 23 – 31 May 2009, the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) have gathered together near Mount Kenya, 25 organisations from 10 countries that work with farmers and local communities on the issues of biodiversity, food sovereignty, livelihoods, climate change, traditional knowledge, culture and community rights in Africa.” A months old, yet still powerful and relevant, declaration and demand for the rejection of false solutions such as GMOs, agrofuels, and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. “ABN believes that the solutions to climate change and hunger are the same: healthy resilient communities depend on healthy resilient ecosystems and biodiversity.”

Town Hall Forum on Food Security and Climate Change

On Oct. 24th, 2009 – UN Day and the International Day of Action on Climate Change – speakers from Puget Sound Millennium Goals, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UW Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences participated in a public Town Hall forum called “Food Security and Climate Change: The Agenda at Copenhagen.” The promotional materials for the event touted the  “investments in adaptation, innovations to improve the heat resistance of crops and agricultural productivity, and the political challenges confronting a new climate change agreement to be negotiated at Copenhagen in December that includes technical and financial aid to developing nations.” Thus, AGRA Watch was concerned that the framing of this event would exclude the role of sustainable, agroecological agricultural systems in mitigating climate change, and a few of us attended the event, criticisms and questions in hand.

The following is our impression of the disappointingly vague and boring forum:

The first speaker, from UW Atmospheric Sciences, was interesting and informative.  He had a lot of data about the dual roles of precipitation and temperature changes in severely impacting agricultural performance, in Europe and the US as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America,  and Asia. His data was sobering, and he presented several different scenarios for where we’d like to be, carbon emissions wise: from “utopia” to where we’re headed now, and an in-between option, which is what he thinks is possible. But even that would require taking some very serious measures to cut back our emissions. One of the most depressing things he mentioned was that in the Sahel, the odds in 2100 of having an average temperature higher than ever recorded in that region are 100%. Overall, the prognosis seems pretty dire, and we wanted to ask what the chances are of getting the amount of CO2 back down to 350 ppm.

The second speaker, the expert from the Gates Foundation was contradictory, not clear or definite about anything. She mostly talked about her experience with the IPCC and FAO, and hardly mentioned anything about the Gates Foundation, their funding, or their priorities. She talked about how to respond to global climate change but not much about agriculture. She said a number of things that seemed ridiculous:  She used hurricane Katrina and how people were wiped out in New Orleans to give an example of how the poor had no resources to deal with climate change!   No history, no politics or economics. One of the other idiotic things she said is that in the past couple centuries, people have increasingly moved to the coastal regions in the Global South, thereby increasing pressure on already fragile ecosystems. “Look at Lagos,” she said. Oh. My. Gosh. Does she really not understand how the slave trade, colonialism, and export reliance totally created those geographies? Does she really think that indigenous peoples and other marginalized peoples just decide to move up on a mountain, rather than being pushed there by settler societies or seeking some refuge from persecution?

She said that in Africa, farmers grow over 7 crop staples and many are more drought tolerant than wheat, rice and corn but that research was going on to make these more drought resistant. She listed several things that had to be happening to get ready for the changes in temperature and rainfall: Adapting and mitgating the effects of climate change, Infrastructure improvements, getting climate and weather information out to people broadly, risk insurance, and coming up with livelihood strategies.  Well, this list is both obvious and in part silly – risk insurance?  Are they in cahoots with the insurance company bigwigs?  What is meant by livelyhood strategies?

She called for “More Global public goods,” under which she listed the need to improve global data collection, dissemination, and analysis, and expansion of international agricultural research. She talked a lot about the role of the Global North–sorry, “developed countries”–to provide agricultural aid and increase emergency food response time. And also, needing to complete the Doha Round, and needing to reinvigorate national agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa. Wait, anyone asking why that funding fell by the wayside to begin with? Of course she didn’t mention structural adjustment…

The charts and graphs she presented as she talked were sophomoric. It is difficult to believe that this expert from the Gates Fnd. is so “fluffy”. It seemed like they just presented what they throught the audience would accept.  There were things to object to and to question but it was so cloudy that there was not much to grab hold of.

Dick Nelson’s presentation was rambling and the main point was that rich countries do not give what they should to support less developed countries to reach the Millenium Development Goals. No argument there, but he didn’t make this very forceful or challenging. He talked about adaptation vs. mitigation and the variable costs associated with these strategies. He also stated that people need electricity, lights, machines, and fans if they are to develop, and how are we to help that happen while also trying to reduce emissions? Because the point is, we are responsible for helping them reduce their emissions, and helping them adapt their agricultural systems. We have a “moral imperative,” because we created the problem. And I quote, “The poor need help, and the rich have resources.” So we have to help them “move up the ladder” by providing the “technology that people need to develop ‘green.'” And if anyone needs an example of how we can help poor countries like, say, Bangladesh, Nelson has one suggestion of something Bangladeshis have asked for that we have the know-how to provide: food banks. Because we are so excellent at creating a highly commdified food system, at overproducing food and still managing to have alarming rates of hunger and food insecurity in our country, and at creating a emergency food system to act as a band-aid. And now we can share this vast knowledge with other countries.

Some of the questions made very clear how intentionally vague the panelists were being. One person asked about migration. Dick Nelson responded in a way that was actually more offensive once you realized he was actually trying to give an answer. He cited the necessity of adaptation, once again. So the answer to migration and climate refugees is… we need to help them adapt better. (How exactly is completing Doha going to help with that?) And then once the audience member asked, “Are you going to answer the question?,” the BMGF speaker said that the EU and US both have very tight immigration restrictions, and we’re already seeing people drowning on boats for Europe, and that’s something we are facing because policies aren’t going to change. “We”? How many of her family members have had to make that decision? Honestly this remark, and her certainty that all we can do is just provide assistance and aid, was the most devastating, depressing thing I heard all evening.

What about the World Bank’s ill-informed water projects that threaten environment and agriculture? Answer: The World Bank could be better informed by science, but “a lot has changed.”

Why can’t we reach the “utopia” level? Is it really out of reach? The BMGF speaker said that it’s really not, and we have the technical abilities, it’s just that political will is lacking to do what we need to do. She didn’t specify what these things might be… legalize GMOs in every country? or make radical changes in how we consume, and how we do business?

And finally, someone addressed the gigantic elephant in the room: Do you think that we can accomplish all these goals without challenging corporate power? Uh-oh. Corporate power? Ummm… The best we can do is support community-based development, provide some “helping hands from the North, and push for the completion of the Doha Round because the WTO provides opportunities for everyone to come to the table and negotiate. (I’m assuming this is keeping agriculture under free trade rules, not addressing IPRs, and keeping US and EU ag subsidies in place, while enforcing free trade on the Global South… otherwise the US will throw a fit and refuse to negotiate at all.) Moving along…

Then questions were cut off, and the host ran in to conclude but mentioned that he noticed one of the things he wanted to address was population. Groan… Fortunately there was no time left, so he just concluded with a spiel about the UN and their organization in Puget Sound, and left us to look at the 3 books at the tabling area: Jeffrey Sachs, Jeffrey Sachs + Bono, and Paul Collier.

Overall, the talk was very vague, very frustrating, very depressing without any real solutions, and sort of boring at times. However, Sarah (moderator, from Yes! Magazine) made one comment that stuck with me, and I conclude with it: If there was an asteroid heading toward Earth right now, what wouldn’t we do to stop it? We would mobilize to do anything to stop it from destroying us. We have control over climate change, we have choices, so why can’t we mobilize around climate change in that same way?

Community Conference, Biotechnology Summit

Heather, Travis, and I recently attended the Community Food Security Coalition conference in Des Moines, Iowa. We spent several days strategizing, networking, and learning about food policy councils, sustainable agriculture, and the amazing work our allies are doing in various states and countries. We listened to Vilsack ramble on about providing technical assistance to struggling small farmers in Afghanistan (huh?), state his support for GMOs, and dodge other questions about why he kept stressing the need to help small AND large farms. (Some of us hissed…) We listened to a spokesperson from Sodexo try to appease us by expressing his appreciation of the the demands and needs of farmworkers, specifically the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have been advocating for a 1 cent raise and a Code of Conduct. But more inspiring, we met with folks from Food First and Via Campesina, received an Honorable Mention Food Sovereignty Prize, attended a strategy session of the US Working Group on the Food Crisis, and received tons of support and new ideas for AGRA Watch’s work.

Across the street, the “suits” were planning the Iowa Hunger Summit, complete with World Food Prize banners, tabling opportunities for a range of corporations, philanthropies, and biotechnology advocates. Sustainability, anyone?

Bill Gates, in advance excerpts published in the Seattle Times, was set to “argue that the ‘ideological wedge’ between groups who disregard environmental concerns and groups who discount productivity gains could thwart major breakthroughs that are within reach.” He said himself,  “The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both.” Read the whole article here:

But, if we can and should have both, why is the Hunger Summit dominated by biotechnology solutions? Why did Bill Gates’s speech tout biotechnology as the solution to global hunger? Because people, corporations, foundations often find answers where they are willing to look, and for the Gates Foundation–built on profits from technological advances–the answer has to lie in technology. And of course, those setting out to “end hunger” can’t be implicated in its causes–we can’t talk about how unsustainable our consumption is, how our systems are built on slavery, colonialism, and unfair trade relationships. Those of us that do, according to Bill Gates, are keeping necessary technologies away from the poor because of our “ideology.”

Hans Herren, who I heard speak at the CFSC Conference, responded in the following way: “What I think is wrong is to blame the people who question the utility now as the bad guys responsible for hunger… Look at the people who have quadrupled yield in perfectly good agriculturally sound systems. Why is this not taken as the example, not to multiply everywhere but as the basis to adapt to different systems?”

Read the Seattle Times article here:

From the Hunger Summit tabling:


“Supporting seed entrepreneurship and increasing yields…”


“Would you like to work for a global corporation?”


Biotech for water, food and fuel…


Bt Eggplant was a very common theme.


Yikes… and on that note:


So much for these efforts centering on small-scale farmers. From this image, we’d assume their only role is to accept new seeds and guidance from white scientists.

I conclude with AGRA Watch’s response to Gates’s speech:

“Those of us questioning AGRA support both productivity and sustainability, however we also support democracy and thus cannot get behind a foundation whose sheer wealth can direct the future of agriculture toward what it sees as the virtues of (bio)technology. Yet Bill Gates continues framing the debate as one between productivity and sustainability, without mention of colonial history, international trade, and export-driven growth, which prioritize foreign markets over local food security. The first Green Revolution also neglected the social, economic, and political roots of hunger, and not surprisingly, hunger and inequality have persisted despite increased yields. The same results can be expected for AGRA.

AGRA’s focus on productivity is not surprising, given that this narrow framing of the problem opens numerous opportunities for corporations to profit from researching, creating and selling seeds and chemical inputs that claim to generate higher yields. Whether these seeds are genetically engineered or not, they are certainly patented and take control and security away from small-scale farmers.In contrast, social movements call for food sovereignty, which is defined by La Via Campesina as “the right of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy… [and to organize] food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption.”

Very rarely do agricultural development programs equally benefit corporations and small-scale farmers, which is why social movements and farmer networks in Africa, and our organization, support sustainable agricultural practices that promote food sovereignty AND maintain high productivity without heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and global capital. Productivity and sustainability cannot be defined in corporate terms and rooted in technological solutions—they must be rooted in grassroots democracy, local resilience, and a more nuanced analysis of the causes of global hunger. The “ideological wedge” to which Bill Gates alludes is a healthy one—between the world’s small-scale agricultural producers and the world’s most powerful corporations. It is up to the Gates Foundation on which side of this gap their interests fall, but they cannot make large grants to institutions
looking for (bio)technology fixes and market-seeking opportunities, and still claim to be aligned with smallholders in Africa.

What is dangerous is not this rift, but what Gates attempts to do: invoke the urgency of poverty and hunger to push through undemocratic techno-fixes that repeat the same social and environmental failures of the first Green Revolution, and skim over the sustainable practices proven by African smallholders to work for their communities. Instead, Gates could help ensure that the knowledge of African small-scale farmers is protected, celebrated, and shared equitably, rather than appropriated by researchers using Intellectual Property Rights to privatize Africa’s genetic wealth and sell it back to African farmers.

Some AGRA Watch members were able to peek in at the Iowa Hunger Summit, and we assure you from the materials we saw and the people we spoke to, it is very clear that the message is less about solving hunger than it is about using hunger in Africa—the “final frontier” for biotechnology and industrial agriculture—to generate profits.

If Bill Gates wants to close the gap, it is his powerful foundation’s responsibility to think more critically about whose interests they are serving, and how they might be more socially, environmentally, and politically responsible. It is not on us to abandon our hopes for food sovereignty and a more just, democratic, and sustainable global food system.”

The struggle continues…

Welcome to AGRA Watch

Welcome to the AGRA Watch blog. AGRA Watch is designed as a semi-public forum for discussion about the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, alternatives to global industrial agriculture, and related issues.

This blog is a work in progress–comments and suggestions for maintaining and moderating it are welcome. Thank you!