Bill Gates and the Uncertain Future of Food Security – PART 2
By ANR Investigative Journalist
The Gates Foundation in Africa
In everything but name Bill Gates is the most influential player in global agricultural policy, operating, as you would expect, with no oversight, accountability, or public scrutiny on how his foundation’s influence is managed. Gates redirects unpaid tax dollars – that would otherwise be spent in the US under a far higher degree of public scrutiny – into influencing public policy in developing markets. When he’s not priming those markets for the smooth entry of his business interests, he’s donating billions, through a circular investment strategy, to the very companies and industries which his foundation owns stocks and bonds in. As Vandana Shiva puts it, ‘the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the new World Bank when it comes to using finances to influence policies in agriculture.’
Consider that Gates is the second largest funder of CGIAR – a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres, conceived by the Rockefeller Foundation in the heyday of the Green revolution.
On paper, CGIAR is concerned with the usual tropes of reducing poverty, increasing food security, and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources. The reality, however, is that CGIAR is a front for corporate America’s neoliberal policies, priming developing markets for the entry of US backed multinationals, and transferring ownership of land and seed rights from small scale farmers to agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Bayer, and Syngenta.
Gates’ self-integrating pledge to help millions of smallholder farmers adapt to the impacts of global warming is nothing short of intellectual property piracy and corporate seed monopolisation, advanced through the influence of CGIAR over public policy and intellectual property laws in the Global South. As noted by Vandana Shiva:: ‘Control over the seeds of the world for “one agriculture” is Mr Gates’ target!
This is being achieved through Gates and the CGIAR appropriating the seed legacy of farmers from around the world and storing them in a private facility in Svalbard in the Arctic, known as the “Doomsday Vault.” There are, by some estimates, over 700,000 accessions of farmer’ seeds held in CGIAR gene banks, representing the largest and most widely used collections of crop diversity in the world.
At the same time, Gates is funding organisations like Diversity Seek (DivSeek) – an organisation focussed on creating patents on seed collections through their genomic mapping, and with over 700,000 crop ascensions held in gene banks, DivSeek could eventually allow a handful of corporations to own this entire catalogue of seed diversity. And we’re not just talking about GM seeds. A March 2015 ruling by the EU Patent Board (EPO) granted patents for two plants bred conventionally, rather than genetically engineered. Despite the EPO later deciding that patents on conventionally grown plants and animals should not be granted, there are several examples showing how the exploitation of legal loopholes have allowed the EPO to continue granting patents on non-GM seeds, from beer to barley, melons to lettuce.
If, indeed, these patents continue to be granted on the results of open crossbreeding processes, a single patent, say on a simple cross-bred apple variety, could be used to cover hundreds of other apple varieties, leading to one patent owner having legal rights to all varieties of apples. As large corporations acquire control over our food production, decide what we eat, what farmers produce, what retailers sell and how much we all have to pay for it. Until eventually everything from seeds to livestock, microbes in the soil to the processes we use to make food are subject to the same trademarks as brands like Coca-Cola.
Revitalising the failed Green Revolution
Gates’ arrival on the agrarian philanthro-capitalism scene began in 2006 with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) – a partnership between the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations that takes as its modal, the Rockefellers’ Green Revolution half a century earlier.
The original Green Revolution introduced capital intensive, high-input, industrial agriculture, and the gene revolution to Asia and Latin America, on the face of it, providing short-term increases in crop yields, but on the back of devastating environmental and social costs. The ripples of which continue across India today with degraded soils, biodiversity decline, health disorders from pesticides, and an overall decline in farmers’ incomes; culminating in a full-blown agrarian crisis by the 1990s, an epidemic of suicides amongst farmers, and more recently, farmers protesting the 2020 Indian Agriculture Acts.
Ignorant of these lessons from history, Gates has essentially revitalised the ghost of the Green Revolution, this time in Africa. Using the influence of his Foundation to drive agriculture reforms across the continent, while bringing to market much of the same Rockefeller inspired innovations, such as high-yield seed varieties, synthetic fertilizer and chemical pesticides, as the story goes, to fight world hunger and poverty.
What Gates is decidedly quiet about, however, is AGRA’s extensive ties and particularly financial interests with the largest chemical pesticide and synthetic fertiliser corporations, who, it turns out, have been the clear winners of AGRA’s programs since 2006.
Now after fourteen years of studies, what becomes clear is that since AGRA’s arrival in Africa, farmers’ incomes have stagnated, their freedom of choice has declined, and overall food security has worsened. What Gates’ rudderless approach fails to observe is that the Green Revolution was always based on Western-style agriculture, and particularly its reliance on fertilizer, weed killers and monocrops – technology that is simply not viable for farming in most of Africa. On the contrary Africa is too dry for thirsty crops, and the extensive use of fertilizer has a devastating impact on the fertility of the soil. Gates operates with the veneer of pouring oil on troubled waters, but the truth is, he’s fanning the flames of future crises.
Since its foundation, AGRA has received contributions of around $1 billion, primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. From these donations, AGRA has awarded grants of more than $500 million, while at the same time African governments plough public funds into AGRA’s programs, through subsidy programs (FISPs), which incentivise farmers to purchase hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers, but the catch is – these products are provided on long-term contracts by, none other than, AGRA’s commercial partners, and are, to say the least, costly and often unnecessary inputs that significantly increase a farmer’s risk of falling into debt. Examples from Tanzania show that farmers are falling into debt with seed and fertilizer corporations, and some have been forced to sell their livestock. A recent analysis in Malawi concluded that the cost of fertilizer was so high that farmers lost money.
Upon its foundation, AGRA set out to double the agricultural yields and incomes of thirty million smallholder farmers. Sounds good on paper, but not so fast.
Fourteen years after AGRA was founded, the initiative has been a spectacular failure. Rather than combating hunger and poverty, hunger has increased across the AGRA focussed countries by 30%, with an additional thirty million more hungry people in Africa since AGRA’s inception. By 2018, yields in the focus countries had increased by 18%, instead of the 100% AGRA promised, whereas, in the period before AGRA, yields in the same countries had grown by a steady 17%.
Not pulling any punches, research from Tufts University shows a decline in yields in Nigeria, the largest maize producer among AGRA countries, with less than 0.5% per year, compared to 2.5% annual yield growth pre-AGRA. Meanwhile Zambia, AGRA’s sixth largest maize producer, posted an annual average of 2% increase in maize yields, whereas yield growth before AGRA was more than double at 4.2% per year. In the fullness of time, therefore, AGRA’s cursory approach has had zero or net negative impact on overall productivity, despite the billions of dollars ploughed into its programs.
Several reports have criticized the true cost of Gates’ green revolution, from increasing costs of production to exacerbating poverty and inequality amongst farmers. An alliance of sixteen African and German organizations conducted extensive analysis into AGRA’s operations and published their findings in this report, concluding that AGRA’s Green Revolution approach did not even provide the farmers involved with incomes above the poverty line and that AGRA systematically exerts political influence on fertilizer and seed legislation to the exclusive benefit of agribusiness.
In the end, AGAR were hoisted by their own petard, when these conclusions were unwittingly confirmed in an internal evaluations document, obtained under a Freedom of Information Request by non-profit investigative research group, Right to Know. But despite these admissions of incompetence, AGRA’s programs continue unencumbered.
Gates Ag One
The latest pallbearer to Gates’ agricultural requiem, is the Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations, LLC. Ag One, as it will be known, will take Gates’ libation of gene editing technologies, patented seeds, and fossil fuel fertilizers to the intersection of ‘technological advancements’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs.’
The plan, according to Mr. Gates is to bridge the data gaps of the global south, meaning Ag One’s focus will be digitising farming in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, using digital agricultural sensors to collect massive amounts of data on everything from planting to farm gate. In other words, the knowledge of indigenous farmers, developed over thousands of years, will be converted into the intellectual property assets of corporations, and in an audacious twist of fate, sold back to those farmers on subscription.
What is equally striking is that this data will eventually be used to accelerate an overhaul to smart-farms, digitised agriculture and ultimately AI. What Gates means by ‘filling the data-gaps in developing markets,’ or ‘providing data as a resource,’ is, nothing short of intellectual property piracy and the harnessing of farmers data, to build maps, predictive models and enable AI to pick up on the ingenuity and know-how of small-scale farmers. Setting the scene for AI to take over the farming sector entirely, and, in the fullness of time, make indigenous farmers obsolete.
Ag One will also be involved in the usual shakedown of farmers towards high input agrichemicals and GMO’s. Opening previously untapped markets in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America for the benefit of Gates-backed private corporations. In Latin America, for example, Ag One has already agreed implementation partnerships with a host of syndicated partners, including: Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta.
At the same time, the Gates Foundations’ ‘Strategic Investment Fund’ – which is focussed on equity participation in for-profit companies – is backing multiple start-ups involved in the development of the very ‘technological advancements’ which, conveniently for Mr Gates, Ag One will promote in its focus countries. This includes a $7 million equity stake in AgBiome, a biotech start-up focused on developing synthetic biological products for the agricultural sector, whose other investors include Monsanto and Syngenta. Another for profit Gates backed venture is Pivot Bio, a biotech start-up focussed on nitrogen fixing microbes, whose other investors include Monsanto Growth Ventures and DARPA.
Agroecology vs Agribusiness
Gates’ vision for the future of food security flies in the face of multiple respectable studies that support alternative, ecologically regenerative farming approaches such as agroecology, which, according to the highest authorities in the land, produce better yields, using less energy, with greater profits for farmers.
Agroecology is a dynamic system of farming that applies ecological principles to agriculture, particularly natural pest control, organic fertilizers, and locally adapted crops, supported by a more regenerative use of natural resources, and optimised interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment.
Countless studies have shown that agroecology wins over high input industrial farming when it comes to optimised food security, nutrition and ecosystem biodiversity, including this 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report not only warns against the damaging effects of industrial monocropping, it highlights the importance of agroecology in improving overall sustainability and the resilience of agricultural systems in buffering weather changes, reducing degradation of soils, and reversing unsustainable use of resources.
This conclusion was endorsed by a study presented at the U.N’s 2nd International Conference on World Food Security, which found that adopting agroecological farming practices, generally led to increased crop yields and profitability for farmers in comparison to industrial farming practices, and concluded by calling for a break with the, Gates-backed, Green Revolution.
The UN’s World Food Systems Summit
There is a sensible debate to be had about the future of agriculture, but not while private donors, operating under the aegis of philanthropy, continue to wield extraordinary influence over intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, and civil society.
On the 23rd of September the UN Food Systems Summit marked what will be remembered as a zero hour for the future of food security. Predictably, Gates was first to the table, shouldering the burden of the event with the appointment of his satellite in Africa – AGRA’s President, Dr Agnes Kalibata – to the role of UN Special Envoy to the Summit. Thus, ensuring AGRA’s interests take centre stage.
But there was hope, as 176 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace pushed back with an open letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General demanding an end to AGRA’s influence over the Summit and underscoring the controversies surrounding The UN-WEF strategic partnership agreement signed in June 2019, that marks the corporate takeover of the UN towards an increasingly privatized and less democratic system of global governance.
On paper, the Gates Foundation has all the appearances of a major benefactor to the Global South, with grants to agriculture projects, mostly in Africa, now exceeding US$6 billion. Of these endowments, however, a report published by non-profit, GRAIN, found that over 90% were awarded to organisations in the US and Europe, and just 5% went to NGOs in Africa, and by far the largest recipient country was the US. When it comes to agricultural grants awarded to universities and national research centres around the world, 79% went to grantees in the US and Europe, and just 12% to recipients in Africa.
Far from lifting millions of farmers out of poverty, Gates endowments support market-based strategies to the benefit of multinational corporations and at the expense of farming communities.
Despite the billions of dollars in aid and government subsidies, hunger and malnutrition continues to worsen across sub-Saharan Africa since the arrival of the Gates Foundation in 2006. Culminating in 155 million people pummelled into hunger last year, as a result of lockdowns which Gates has thrown his full weight behind since the start of the pandemic.
Gates’ complicity in the looming food security catastrophe will, of course, go entirely unnoticed by his acolytes on the left, who view him as a latter day saint, magnanimously donating his personal wealth for the prosperity of humanity, when nothing could be further from the truth.
In the end, Bill ‘Tax Exempt’ Gates is a shrewd investor who hedges his bets according to an investment strategy which primes healthy markets for the smooth entry of his business interests. Nothing new under the sun, given his bristle with the Justice Department in 2001, following the US vs Microsoft antitrust lawsuit, initiated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1998, which saw Gates changing horses from capitalist to philanthropist. It could be argued that Gates, having taken Microsoft’s growth to the limit of its expansion within the jurisdiction of the law, established a new vehicle – the BMGF in 2000 – to transgress those very laws. Choosing the path of most resistance to transparency, accountability, and public scrutiny, while providing the necessary image management collateral to whitewash his diminishing reputation as the world’s most despised monopolist.
Borrowing heavily from his guru, John D Rockefeller, Gates’ brand values pays tribute to America’s first billionaire, whose own legacy wrote the corporate history of the 20th century, and conceived the industries which Gates would come to inherit. From allopathic medicine to industrial farming to petrochemicals, the silver lining of COVID, climate change and other devices of disaster-capitalism, have transformed Gates from enemy of the people into latter day saint, while providing him with a mandate to reshape the world in his own image.
Operating above the law, and answerable to nobody, if the influence and legacy of Bill Gates remains unencumbered by checks and balances, he may well present one of the gravest threats to the future of humanity we will face this century.