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Gates Foundation responds re Monsanto investments

Flickr, by sarniebill1

The Guardian recently published a post on its new online Global Development site (funded by the Gates Foundation) in which their environmental writer demanded that the Seattle mega-philanthropy explain why it had recently upped its investments in Monsanto.

Monsanto is big on genetically modified seeds and crops. The Gates Foundation is trying to spur an agricultural revolution in Africa. Some see this as an unholy alliance to spread genetically modified organisms across the planet (lots of GMO crops are already all over the U.S., as it turns out).

Not surprisingly, many people commented on this article.

But I wanted to highlight one response posted the other day from Mark Suzman, advocacy director for global development at the Gates Foundation.

Below is Mark’s statement printed in entirety:

From Mark Suzman, director of policy, advocacy and special initiatives for the global development program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we believe investing in small farmers – most of whom are women – is an incredibly effective way to combat hunger and extreme poverty. History has proved it many times, and we are seeing it again as momentum builds to put agriculture back on the global agenda.

Unfortunately, this Guardian blog oversimplified our approach to this complex challenge.

We believe agricultural development in Africa must be guided by small farmers. It must be adapted to local conditions and sustainable for the economy and the environment. That’s why we take a comprehensive approach – one that includes seeds, soil, farm management, market access and effective policies. Simply put, there is no silver bullet.

A detailed description of our strategy is available on our website as is a speech that Bill Gates delivered at the World Food Prize Symposium last year, which further explains our approach.

Small farmers face immense challenges – degraded soil, drought, pests, malnutrition and disease – and climate change will only make them worse. Small farmers want reliable markets and ways to store their crops so they don’t spoil. They want maize that can grow in a drought and rice that can survive in a flood. They want cassava that won’t surrender to disease and sweet potatoes that provide nutrients for their children. They need higher yields on the same land in harsher weather.

Some of our agricultural development grants support crop breeding to address these challenges. The majority of those use conventional breeding techniques. We invest in transgenic technologies (genetic modification) when we believe there is potential to address the challenges facing small farmers faster and more efficiently than conventional breeding alone. These technologies currently represent about 6 percent of our total investments in agriculture and nutrition.

The projects we fund that include biotechnology require grantees to develop plans to ensure that the results will be made available to people most in need, at affordable prices, in the developing world. We also support and invest in the development of policies and regulations to ensure the safety and effectiveness of agricultural products. And we support strict environmental safeguards and the use of sustainable farming techniques including preserving healthy soil and promoting improved water use that are only becoming more critical given the growing challenges of climate change. Ultimately, countries and farmers need to decide what’s right for them.

Obstacles to agricultural development span sectors and so do their solutions. That’s why we partner with a wide range of organizations in the public and private sectors: farmers’ groups, national agricultural research organizations in Africa, non-profits, international research centers, universities engaged in plant science, governments, multilateral agencies and private companies. To date we have made more than 268 agriculture and nutrition grants. Monsanto is donating technology and expertise to one of them: the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. The goal of the project is to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties and make them available royalty-free to small farmers in Africa. The foundation employs more than 800 employees around the world who have had previous careers with thousands of organizations across public, private and non-profit sectors. The foundation trust, which holds the endowment and manages the investments, is a separate entity from the grantmaking foundation.

We are encouraged by the renewed energy around agricultural development and the progress we are already seeing in the lives of small farmers in Africa and South Asia. But there’s a long way to go. Nearly 1 billion people in the world live in chronic hunger and more than a billion live in extreme poverty. Continued progress will take sustained commitment in donor and developing countries and a willingness to move beyond ideologies so we can find solutions together.


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.