Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will set up a new institute, to ‘enable the advancement of resilient, yield-enhancing seeds’ and introduce scientific breakthroughs into specific crops essential to smallholder farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will “advance high-impact discoveries that can help smallholder farmers, and accelerate the development of cutting-edge technologies into useful products”. The new initiative will be called The Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations LLC, or “Gates Ag One” in short.
Yet another agricultural research institute!? Channelling Gates money to push the Gates agenda onto farmers? Five years ago, GRAIN published an analysis and dataset about how Gates spends his money to ¨help¨ agriculture in Africa. Our main conclusion was that most of his grants ended up in research institutes in the US and Europe, to produce technology for African farmers. We already have the Green Revolution research centres, brought together under the CGIAR, heavily funded by Gates. For decades, they have been pushing new seeds and technologies into farmers´ fields across the world. And what happened to the massive funding scheme to promote a new Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that the Gates Foundation launched almost a decade and a half ago? From the sound of it, the new ‘Gates Ag One’ won’t be much different. We wrote to the Gates Foundation asking these questions, but didn’t receive a reply.
It seems that Gates is impatient with the speed of existing institutes and initiatives. ‘We didn’t think that research was flowing down to the crops that matter most to smallholder farmers in a timeframe that could reach them (…) We needed to accelerate the access to the kinds of products and services that low-income people and smallholder farmers need’, claims Rodger Voorhies, one of the lead people in the Gates Foundation. They looked at a number of other strategies, such as increasing funding to existing institutions, but decided the best use of Gates money was to set up a new non-profit entity tied to the Gates Foundation instead.
It’s not very clear what this new organisation will exactly do. But the general line of work is clear: get the products from the labs into the fields, faster and more massive than before. The objective seems to be to identify ‘promising’ scientific discoveries and get those as quickly as possible to the point of commercialisation. Gene editing (or CRISPR), something that Gates has been pushing for several years now, looks like one such candidate. Gates used to fund others to get this done, but impatient with lack of progress, he now wants to do it himself, it seems.
When Gates started AGRA in Africa 15 years ago, it was because he didn’t see the Green Revolution happening there as it had happened in other continents. Bill Gates´ enthusiasm for GMO’s and chemical fertilizers is well known – so the ‘scientific breakthroughs’ he is again so eager to get into the farmers´ fields will surely be transgenic and responsive to chemicals. The fact that the new centre will be based in St. Louis, Missouri USA, home of Monsanto and other GMO and pesticide giants, is not a coincidence. Part of the AGRA strategy was to create an Africa-wide network of local ‘agrodealers’ to get agrochemicals, fertilizers and hybrid seeds to the farmers. But it’s not going fast and far enough for Gates. Apparently, we need to push harder and faster.
But what if we would slow down, stop pushing, and start thinking? Why is it that small farmers in Africa don’t readily jump on what Gates is offering them? Perhaps it’s because the ‘solutions’ Gates is offering isn’t really helping them. Perhaps it doesn’t fit into their farming systems, or just doesn’t meet their needs.
The earlier-quoted Voorhies made an interesting comment when explaining the initiative: “In agriculture, time is your biggest enemy” he said. We beg to disagree. In local farming systems, time and timing is everything: when to work the soil, when to plant, when to weed, when to harvest. Peasant farmers with their deep knowledge of their local agroecosystems are masters at timing. Because they know that if they mess it up, their families won’t eat. Why such a rush, when farming is based on natural cycles that take time to develop? Perhaps because Gates Ag One is really one more way to push the Gates agenda for agribusiness.