Guest columnist Glenn Ashton argues that Bill Gates' support of genetically modified crops conflicts with scientific research funded by the World Bank and the United Nations, and with grass-roots agronomic movements, on what is best for Africa.
Bill Gates’ support of genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution for world hunger is of concern to those of us involved in promoting sustainable, equitable and effective agricultural policies in Africa.
There are two primary shortcomings to Gates’ approach.
First, his technocratic ideology runs counter to the best informed science. The World Bank and United Nations funded 900 scientists over three years in order to create an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Its conclusions were diametrically opposed, at both philosophical and practical levels, to those espoused by Gates and clearly state that the use of GM crops is not a meaningful solution to the complex situation of world hunger.
The IAASTD suggests that rather than pursuing industrial farming models, “agro-ecological” methods provide the most viable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change. These include implementing practical scientific research based on traditional seed varieties and local farming practices adapted to the local ecology over millennia.
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Agro-ecology has consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity. Conversely, the present GM crops generally have not increased yields over the long run, despite their increased costs and dependence on agricultural chemicals, as highlighted in the 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Failure to Yield.”
For example, experimental “drought-resistant” corn, supported by Gates and Monsanto, is far less robust than natural maize varieties and farming methods requiring less water. Thus, Gates’ GM “solutions” depend on higher-cost inputs — such as fertilizers, pest controls and the special seeds themselves — distracting attention from proven, lower-cost approaches.
Secondly, Gates sponsors compliant African organizations whose work with multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto undermines existing grass-roots efforts to improve local production methods. He has become a stalking horse for corporate proponents of industrial agriculture which perceive African hunger simply as a business opportunity. His Gates Foundation has referred to the world’s poor as the “BOP” (bottom of pyramid), presenting ” … a fast growing consumer market.”
Olivier De Shutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, reinforces the IAASTD research. He, too, concludes that agro-ecological farming has far greater potential for fighting hunger, particularly during economic and climatically uncertain times.
Poverty is the result of a dominant global economic system that considers traditional farmers, who produce mainly for local consumption, not export, as not contributing to the gross domestic product. To force these “BOPs” into the industrial agriculture system ignores their requirements. Gates’ philanthropy is undemocratic at both ideological and practical levels. It ignores democratically derived African solutions to our food security problems. Further, it runs counter to the traditional methodology of bi- and multilateral foreign aid, which is obliged to consider local policies and sensitivities.
Africa suffers from well-intended but poorly considered agricultural policies imposed by external “experts.” For one of the world’s wealthiest men to presume he can provide all of the solutions is arrogant. His “near-religious faith in technology” (as described in a recent business journal) conflicts with the practical work of the IAASTD, De Shutter and grass-roots democratic agronomic movements.
While successful in his chosen field, Gates has no expertise in the farm field. This is not to say that he and his fellow philanthropists cannot contribute — they certainly can. However, some circumspection and humility would go a long way to heal the rifts they have opened. Beating Africans with the big stick of high-input proprietary technology has never been requested; it will perpetuate neo-imperialism and repetition of foreign-imposed African “failure.” Africans urge Bill Gates to engage with us in a more-broadly consultative, agro-ecological approach.
Glenn Ashton is a South African agricultural consultant and researcher who has worked with grass-roots organizations across a broad range of social interests in the region. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org