This is the first of a two-part investigation into Bill Gates’s global food and land interests.
AS WE approach a winter of discontent and global food systems go from bad to worse, there’s trouble in paradise. At the root of these problems, government responses to Covid-19 have caused a six-fold increase in famine-like conditions as global supply chains collapse, and field trials for gene-edited crops and farm animals begin in the UK.
Against this perfect storm, the UN’s World Food Systems Summit convened last month, with member states joining the private sector, civil society groups and researchers to bring about ‘tangible, positive changes’ to the world’s food systems and, as the story goes, ‘drive recovery from Covid-19’.
Even if we could solve our problems using the same logic that created them, there are deeper institutional problems undermining the integrity of the summit. Specifically, its corporate capture by one man whose vision of the future of food security places the interests of civil society and farming communities in a different universe from the corporations he is beholden to.
A household name on the world stage of disaster-capitalism, there is more to Bill Gates than doomsayer-general terrorising the world’s population into a permanent state of suspended animation, and it typically involves the future of food security.
America’s fast-food impresario
In less than a decade, Gates has become America’s largest farmland owner, acquiring more than 269,000 prime acres including the 100 Circles Farm where potatoes are grown for fast food giant McDonald’s. Gates effectively owns McDonald’s fries, his commitment to public health aside.
On the one hand Gates is the most influential player in global public health, following in the footsteps of his spiritual leader, John D Rockefeller; on the other he backs a confederacy of fast food brands that are killing more people globally than tobacco and driving those who survive towards the very pharmaceuticals which he also wheels and deals to the 50 per cent of all Americans suffering from chronic health disorders.
When it comes to fast food, Gates owns 7.8 per cent of Warren Buffet’s investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, which controls 39 per cent of the largest Subway fast food franchise and 9.3 per cent of the Coca-Cola company. That’s in addition to the Gates Foundation’s 16.8 per cent stake in the largest Coca-Cola bottling franchise in the world, named for the fourth consecutive year the world’s biggest plastic polluter.
Gates’s environmental effrontery is only part of the problem. He also backs multiple ventures that blur the lines between food and tech, and if he has his way, the food of the future will little resemble what’s served on our plate today.
His centre of gravity is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. He owns 500,000 Monsanto shares worth $23billion, making him, by implication, the sworn enemy of everything under the sun organic and sustainable. There’s the Gates-funded Impossible Burger, made from genetically engineered soy and yeast, with its manufacturer, Impossible Foods, owning 25 patents on artificially replicated cheese, beef and chicken.
Another Gates-backed start-up doing the rounds on the capital markets is Ginkgo Bioworks. According to their mission statement, Gingko will produce custom organisms, using cell programming technology to genetically engineer flavours and create ingredients for ultra-processed foods. Their plan is to license more than 20,000 engineered cell programs to the food industry.
Indeed, if the agrifoodtech ventures Gates is bringing to market continue to flourish, traditional diets will soon be replaced by laboratory cultivated meat and other engineered foods.
Like Rockefeller before him, Gates is transforming how we produce food, weaving climate change and the mantra of ‘following the science’ into his worldview.
This typically involves genetics, agrichemicals, and his foundation’s industry partners operating monopolies over services and supply chains. Apparently of little importance to Gates are the social and environmental costs of his ventures as he promotes one set of values and invests in another.
Take for example this widely read blog post from 2019. On the one hand Gates accepts that agriculture accounts for 24 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, but despite being the largest farm land owner in the US, he and others tell us that agriculture makes up as much as 70 per cent per cent of fresh water usage globally, leading to greater soil erosion, deforestation, and, you guessed it, climate change.
Synthetic fertilisers, the green revolution and eugenics
With no attempt at concealment, Gates flouts the values of low carbon and sustainability which he helped to popularise. From the carbon footprint of his farmland holding to $1.4 billion invested in the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, Gates backs all the largest corporate perpetrators on the list of the European Commission’s top five causes of climate change.
When it comes to unsustainable scientific interventions, nothing hits the mark like synthetic fertilisers, which Gates describes as the ‘magical innovation that’s responsible for saving millions of lives from hunger and lifting millions more out of poverty’. What he fails to divulge is that synthetic fertilisers pollute the world’s water sources, destroy the world’s largest carbon sink, the soil, exhaust the soil’s natural nitrogen deposits, deplete the soil’s microbial biomass, and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are key drivers of climate change.
Synthetic fertilizers are central to Gates’s master plan for the future of food security. He appears to be under the spell of Europe’s biggest fertiliser producer, Yara, who not only are accused of causing climate catastrophe, but whose top executives were sent to prison in one of Norway’s biggest corruption scandals. There’s also the small matter of his 14.4 per cent ownership of Canadian National Railways, one of the most important fertiliser supply chain operations in North America.
On the one hand Gates uses his influence to transform public policy towards high input farming interventions, on the other he directly profits from their deployment. It appears to be of little importance to him whether these interventions are fit for purpose.
Fertilisers, for example, were once solely derived from natural and organic farming practices, including compost, manure and crop rotation, and have been shown to be more robust, sustainable and profitable to farmers. That was until the arrival of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Green Revolution in the 1950s, which galvanised an industry-wide switch to chemical interventions, large scale, technology-driven monoculture and hybridised seeds. The modernisation heralded the arrival of mega-corporations into global farming and the reliance of small-scale farmers on their products and services.
Imperialism in the Global South
Gates’s way of doing business means preferential treatment for corporate America, and a big nothing for farming communities. This can be seen across all areas of agricultural innovation where Gates has imposed himself. From hybridised seeds to agrichemicals, Gates and his industry partners are industrialising and digitising agriculture in the Global South and ushering in a new brand of imperialism under the banner of public-private partnerships. Far from lifting farmers out of poverty or addressing so-called climate change, communities are being robbed of their livelihoods and the environment is in turmoil.
Cargill is the biggest global player in the production and trade of soya, the world’s number one exported agricultural commodity globally for the livestock and biofuels industries.
With Brazil the leading soya bean-producing country, it has been estimated that 19 per cent of the Amazon has been deforested to date, 5 per cent by mega agribusiness corporations, including Cargill, Monsanto, Bunge and Archer Daniels Midland.
Though Gates has sold much of his stock, his foundation’s investment portfolio has owned, traded and profited from stock in four of the top five global players in the soya trade. The dark irony, as Gates points out in his blog, is that ‘when soil gets disturbed – like it does when you convert a forest into cropland – all that stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide’. Consequently, ‘deforestation is responsible for 11 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions’.
Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation is involved in a $10million partnership with Cargill to develop the soya value chain in Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa, priming an otherwise untapped African market for ‘Brazilian style’ GM soybean implementation. In what has become a standard play, Gates enters the market as a white knight advocating for the environment and smallholder farmers. But the trick is that he’s quietly facilitating privatisation deals, increased dependency on agrochemicals, an overhaul to patented seeds and GM monocrops – culminating in corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken cornering new markets and small farmers and local diets changing to factory farm economies. In every conceivable way, this is catastrophic for small-scale farmers who are the key drivers of local wealth creation in Africa and supply most of the affordable food across the continent.
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. Gates redirects unpaid tax dollars which 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 in which his foundation owns stocks and bonds. As Indian environmental activist 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’s pledge to help millions of smallholder farmers adapt to the impact 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. To paraphrase Vandana Shiva: ‘Control over the seeds of the world for “one agriculture” is Mr Gates’s 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 farmers’ 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 focused on creating patents on seed collections through their genomic mapping. DivSeek could eventually allow a handful of corporations to own this entire catalogue of seed diversity. We’re not just talking about GM seeds. A 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 barley and melons to lettuce.
If these patents continue to be granted on the results of open crossbreeding processes, a single patent, say on a single 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, they decide what we eat, what farmers produce, what retailers sell and how much we all have to pay for it. Eventually everything from seeds to livestock, microbes in the soil to the processes we use to make food will be subject to the same trademarks as brands like Coca-Cola.
The second part of this report tomorrow examines Gates’s revitalisation of the ‘Green Revolution’, this time in Africa.