Activists challenge Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategy

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Seattle-based AGRA Watch, an activist organization that believes the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural reform in Africa is environmentally, economically and ethically unsound, today released a protest letter signed by more than 100 organizations, food experts and scientists opposed to the strategy.

The letter was released to coincide with street protests in Cancun held by groups angry with the nature of the climate talks going on there this week. (Note: KPLU’s Liam Moriarty is there, and reports here.)

“The Gates Foundation is promoting a Western, industrialized agricultural approach that serves corporate interests, not the needs of poor farmers worldwide, a strategy that will also do serious damage to the environment,” said Phil Bereano, a member of AGRA Watch and a retired UW professor of technology policy.

Agricultural reform is a key mission of the Gates Foundation, which helped launch an organization based in Africa devoted to this called AGRA, the Allliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

AGRA, chaired by former UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan, says it neither favors or shuns any particular approach to agriculture and is, in fact, focused on finding evidence-based solutions that can help smallholder farmers through environmentally sustainable methods.

“Yeah, that’s what they say but it’s not what they do,” says Bereano.

One of the primary bones of contention is the Gates Foundation’s support for genetically modified crops as a means for transforming African agriculture. Here’s an earlier post I did on this, “Squeamish About Biotech.”

AGRA Watch’s open letter of protest to the Gates Foundation is accompanied by an online petition signed by thousands of people in 30 countries representing civil society groups, farmworker organizations, health and environmental organizations.

Susan Byrnes, a spokeswoman for the philanthropy, responded to AGRA Watch’s announcement by emphasizing that the Gates Foundation has a very simple goal but recognizes there is no simple solution to Africa’s need for improving agricultural productivity:

“Our goal is to help poor farmers grow and sell more so they can feed their families and build better lives,” said Byrnes. She adds:

“This is an extremely complex challenge – and there’s no silver bullet. That’s why we work with a wide range of partners – including African leaders and small farmers. And it’s why we take a comprehensive approach that includes seeds, soil, farm management and effective policies. We’re in this for the long haul and only interested in long-term solutions that are sustainable for the economy and the environment.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.