The first article in this two-part investigation into Bill Gates’s food and land interests was published yesterday and can be found here.
BILL Gates’s 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 model the Rockefeller Green Revolution half a century earlier.
The original Green Revolution introduced capital intensive, high-input, industrial agriculture and gene technology to Asia and Latin America. This provided short-term increases in crop yields 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 against the 2020 Indian Agriculture Acts.
Ignoring these lessons from history, Gates has essentially resurrected the ghost of the Green Revolution, this time in Africa. He is using the influence of his foundation to drive agriculture reforms across the continent, while bringing to market many of the same Rockefeller-inspired innovations such as high-yield seed varieties, synthetic fertiliser 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 with and financial interests in the largest chemical pesticide and synthetic fertiliser corporations, which have been the clear winners from AGRA’s programmes since 2006.
After fourteen years of studies, it is clear 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’s approach fails to observe is that the Green Revolution was always based on Western-style agriculture, and particularly its reliance on fertiliser, weedkillers and monocrops, technology that is simply not viable for farming in most of Africa. The continent is too dry for thirsty crops, and the extensive use of fertiliser has a devastating long-term impact on the fertility of the soil. Gates operates with the veneer of pouring oil on troubled waters, but the truth is that he’s fanning the flames of future crises.
Since its foundation, AGRA has received contributions of around $1billion, primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. From these donations, AGRA has awarded grants of more than $500million. At the same time African governments plough public funds into AGRA through subsidy programmes which incentivise farmers to purchase hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilisers. The catch is that these products are provided on long-term contracts by AGRA’s commercial partners, and are costly and often unnecessary inputs. Examples from Tanzania show that farmers are falling into debt with seed and fertiliser corporations, and some have been forced to sell their livestock. A recent analysis in Malawi concluded that the cost of fertiliser 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 . . .
Fourteen years later, the initiative has been a spectacular failure. Rather than combating hunger and poverty, hunger has increased across the AGRA focused countries by 30 per cent, with thirty million more hungry people in Africa since AGRA’s inception. By 2018, yields in the focus countries had increased by 18 per cent, instead of the 100 per cent AGRA promised, whereas in the comparable period before AGRA yields in the same countries had grown by a steady 17 per cent.
Not pulling any punches, research from the US Tufts University shows a slowing of growth in yields in Nigeria, the largest maize producer among AGRA countries, with less than 0.5 per cent per year compared with 2.5 per cent annual yield growth pre-AGRA. Meanwhile Zambia, AGRA’s sixth largest maize producer, posted an annual average of 2 per cent increase in maize yields, whereas yield growth before AGRA was more than double at 4.2 per cent per year. AGRA’s approach has had zero or net negative impact on overall productivity, despite the billions of dollars ploughed into its programmes.
Several reports have criticised the true cost of Gates’s green revolution, from increasing costs of production to exacerbating poverty and inequality amongst farmers. An alliance of 16 African and German organisations conducted extensive analysis into AGRA’s operations and published their findings in this report, concluding that AGRA’s Green Revolution approach does not even provide the farmers involved with incomes above the poverty line, and that AGRA systematically exerts political influence on fertiliser and seed legislation to the exclusive benefit of agribusiness.
These conclusions were unwittingly confirmed in an internal evaluations document obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the non-profit investigative research group Right to Know. Despite these admissions of incompetence, AGRA’s programmes continue unhindered.
A recent addition to the Gates agricultural portfolio is Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations, LLC. Ag One, as it will be known, will take Gates’s gene-editing technologies, patented seeds and fossil fuel fertilisers to the intersection of ‘technological advancements’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs’.
The plan, according to 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, collecting 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, sold back to those farmers on subscription.
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, the harnessing of farmers’ expertise to build maps and predictive models, and enable AI to take over the farming sector and make indigenous farmers obsolete.
Ag One wil be involved in the usual shakedown of farmers towards high input agrochemicals and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), 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 agreed partnerships with a host of syndicated partners including Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta.
At the same time, the Gates Foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund, which is focused on equity participation in for-profit companies, is backing multiple start-ups involved in the development of the very ‘technological advancements’ which, conveniently for Gates, Ag One will promote in its focus countries. This includes a $7million equity stake in AgBiome, developing synthetic biological products for the agricultural sector, whose other investors include Monsanto and Syngenta. Another for-profit Gates-backed venture is Pivot Bio, focused on nitrogen-fixing microbes, whose other investors include Monsanto Growth Ventures and DARPA, a branch of of the US Department of Defense.
Agroecology vs Agribusiness
Gates’s vision for the future of food security flies in the face of authoritative studies which support farming approaches such as agroecology which produce better yields, using less energy, with greater profits for farmers.
Agroecology applies ecological principles to agriculture, particularly natural pest control, organic fertilisers and locally adapted crops. 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 warns against the damaging effects of industrial monocropping and highlights the importance of agroecology in improving overall sustainability. This conclusion was endorsed by a study presented at the UN’s 2nd International Conference on World Food Security which called 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 guise of philanthropy continue to wield such extraordinary influence over intergovernmental organisations, NGOs and civil society.
On September 23 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 organisations 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, which marks the corporate takeover of the UN towards an increasingly privatised and less democratic system of global governance.
On paper, the Gates Foundation has the appearance of a major benefactor to the Global South, with grants to agriculture projects, mostly in Africa, exceeding $6billion. Yet hunger and malnutrition continues to worsen across sub-Saharan Africa since the arrival of the Gates Foundation in 2006. 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. And 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.
Last year 155million people were pummelled into hunger as a result of pandemic lockdowns which Gates has thrown his full weight behind. His leading role in the looming food security catastrophe will, of course, go entirely unmentioned by his acolytes 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.
Bill ‘Tax Exempt’ Gates is a shrewd investor who primes healthy markets for the smooth entry of his business interests. Nothing new under the sun, given his tangle with the Justice Department in 2001, following the US vs Microsoft antitrust lawsuit initiated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1998, which saw him 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 law, established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to bypass those very laws. This was choosing the path of most resistance to transparency, accountability and public scrutiny, while providing the necessary image management to whitewash his reputation as the world’s most despised monopolist.
Borrowing heavily from his guru, John D Rockefeller, Gates’s 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, Bill Gates may well present one of the gravest threats to the future of humanity we will face this century.