Q&A with an architect of the Gates-funded ‘green revolution’ for Africa | 

Flickr, agrforum

Kofi Annan and Melinda Gates at 2012 African Green Revolution Forum, Tanzania

While Bill Gates was in New York City to stump for polio eradication at last week’s ‘high-level’ side meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Melinda Gates was attending another fairly high-level meeting in Arusha, Tanzania – the African Green Revolution Forum.

One of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s top priorities is to improve agricultural productivity and the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa, where crop yields have historically been much lower than elsewhere in the world contributing to much of the continent’s poverty. Most Africans are smallholder farmers, most farmers are women and most are poor.

With former United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan as its leading spokesman, the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation in 2006 launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

It hasn’t been without controversy.

To begin with, the term “Green Revolution” comes with baggage. The first Green Revolution was an agricultural reform initiative led half a century ago by an amazing agricultural scientist named Norman Borlaug and pushed by the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at improving crop yields in poor countries.

That first Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s did improve yields dramatically in many regions of the world, saving lives and ending hunger. But it also promoted a Western-style, industrialized approach to agriculture that favored large-scale monoculture crops and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This had the adverse effect of knocking many smallholder farmers off their land in favor of corporate farming, caused environmental problems and actually sometimes increased costs for farmers. The lesson: Improving crop yield isn’t everything.

Also, Africa got skipped over in the first Green Revolution.

So when the Gates Foundation announced a few years back that it was sponsoring a second Green Revolution for Africa, many took them as fighting words. Organizations like Seattle-based AGRA Watch is a leading critic of the Gates approach and has organized protests focused on the philanthropy’s partnerships with big agri-businesses like Monsanto.

Gates Foundation

Roy Steiner

Roy Steiner is deputy director for agriculture in the development program at the Gates Foundation. Roy, who as been there since before the philanthropy dug into the dirt, has degrees in all sort of things from all sorts of major universities. He has lived in Africa and worked on a number of projects, both agricultural and technological, and went to the meeting last week in Tanzania as well.

I asked Roy to explain where they are with this ‘green revolution’ for Africa, what it is the world’s biggest philanthropy is trying to do for poor farmers and why it remains controversial.

Q Why is the idea of launching a ‘green revolution’ for Africa so controversial?

RS: I think it’s more problematic in the north than in Africa. Many African leaders want a green revolution. They want to be able to feed their people and move away from food aid. The first green revolution did cause some significant social, economic and environmental problems and we don’t want to repeat those problems.

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South African critic of Gates-funded ‘green revolution for Africa’ speaks in Seattle tonight | 

Lawrence Mkhaliphi

Lawrence Mkhaliphi is a farmer, agro-ecologist and South African activist opposed to the efforts of a Gates Foundation-funded initiative called AGRA, or the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

“The approach they have taken benefits large corporations and outsiders, not poor communities in Africa,” says Mkhaliphi, who says the issue of local ‘food sovereignty’ must be emphasized in these efforts to improve African agriculture — not just agricultural productivity alone.

“They (AGRA) are undermining local people’s power over their own livelihoods, over the ability to promote local solutions,” he contended in a brief discussion I had with him yesterday. “This will only make them poorer, with less control over their lives.”

Mkhaliphi, who is a leading member of an advocacy organization Biowatch South Africa, is on a U.S. tour and is speaking tonight under sponsorship by the Seattle organization AGRA Watch — which is also opposed to the efforts of AGRA and, generally, to what they perceive to be a Western, industrialized agricultural strategy imposed on Africa.

For more details about the event tonight, at 7 pm in Seattle’s Madison neighborhood, go here.


World’s food needs are central to health, poverty efforts | 

Flickr, elana's pantry

You can’t get very far trying to improve people’s health, reduce poverty or empower the poor without food.

This week in Des Moines, Iowa, about 1,000 people, including many former heads of state and top agricultural policy folk, are gathered together to talk about food — or more accurately, how to feed the planet’s growing population.

This is the week-long World Food Prize symposium and Borlaug Dialogue.

The latter part of the event title (no, it’s not a science fiction plot) is named after the late Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist who spearheaded the so-called Green Revolution which dramatically increased agricultural productivity in many parts of the world during the mid-to-late 20th Century.

There’s a push today for another such effort especially targeting Africa, which did not see much benefit from Borlaug’s revolution. It’s led by an organization called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which was launched largely thanks to support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Many are critical of this new proposed Green Revolution for Africa, such as one Seattle-based organization known as AGRA Watch. There are too many issues to describe it adequately, but in a nutshell AGRA Watch sees the Gates-backed project as mostly favoring the interests of large international agricultural corporations like ADM, Cargill or Monsanto rather than the poor.

Many were, and are, critical of Borlaug’s original project as well. While the first Green Revolution did increase overall productivity, many contend it did so using industrialized farming techniques (mono-cultures, heavy fertilizer use) that may have improved yields but often did so at the expense of small, community-based farmers and the natural environment.

It’s way too big an issue to cover in this post. Here are few stories coming out of, or related to, the meeting this week:

Inter Press: Biofuels, market speculators driving up food prices

AP: Howard Buffett says no simple solution to global food crisis

Ames Tribune: Global food security key to national security, US Agri Chief says

Guardian: Agricultural policy hurting farmers in poor countries

Reuters: DR Congo is ranked worst on global hunger index

ONE Campaign: World Food Prize kick off

Below is a map featuring the findings of the 2010 Global Hunger Index

Eco-farming best for poor, UN expert says, not Gates Foundation approach | 

Flickr, Global Crop Diversity Trust

One of the Gates Foundation’s primary goals is to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa by helping improve agricultural productivity.

On Tuesday, the United Nations issued a report that appeared to challenge the Seattle philanthropy’s approach.

The Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have launched what they are calling a new Green Revolution for Africa. It is a multi-pronged strategy that tends to favor scientific and technological solutions and that some see as too heavily dependent upon Western-style, industrialized farming techniques.

This week, the UN issued a report urging “eco-farming” as the best strategy for improving farming in the developed world. In it, the author appears to challenge the wisdom of the Gates Foundation’s approach in agricultural development. Continue reading

Activists challenge Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategy | 

AGRA Watch

AGRA Watch logo

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. Continue reading