"We cannot rely on the people who created our inequitable food system to fix it."
– Corinna Hawkes et al, The Lancet, July 2022
It is often said that we need to shift funding from industrial agriculture to agroecology in order to advance food sovereignty. While it’s true that we need to resource and strengthen agroecology, the idea that it’s matter of moving money around, or pointing institutions in a different direction, is not as straightforward as it sounds. We learned this the hard way several decades ago.
Ever since the Green Revolution took hold in different parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s, it met deep resistance from peasant farmers, local communities and civil society at large. For those who may not be familiar with it, the “Green Revolution” was an initiative of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations based in the US. They decided to put the wealth they were tasked to manage from the two families’ automobile (Ford) and energy (Standard Oil) businesses toward boosting agricultural productivity in what is today the global South. Back then, the concern was to “fill hungry stomachs” in order to stop the spread of communism, mainly in Asia and Latin America. Hence the name green revolution, instead of red.
The "adventure", as the founders called it, started with the setting up of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and then the International Maize and Wheat Research Institute in Mexico. By 1971, the foundations transferred responsibility to the World Bank, which agreed to host an international secretariat for what grew into a network of 16 international agricultural research centres, tightly connected to counterparts at the national level for maximum outreach.
Those centres were essentially plant breeding laboratories. And as they got to work, they replaced the incredible biodiversity and cultural prowess that brought us crops like wheat, maize, rice and potatoes with radically standardised, so-called high-yielding types. The new seeds, as farmers would come to learn, required a package of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation to grow well. Pushed as they were through government subsidies and restrictive credit schemes (no loans unless you use the right seeds), these Western funded seeds also ushered in a new role for rising global seed corporations to peddle hybrids and, later on GMOs, to a new captive clientele. In the 2000s, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates fell in love with this operation and started directly funding the international research centres and similar projects, like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
This strategy did increase cereal production in some places, but at a cost of tremendous harm. It eliminated biodiversity and people’s knowledge of it, destroyed soils, poisoned water sources, led to health problems for many communities from agrichemicals and monocrop diets, and put farmers into debt. But 70 years later, it’s still being pushed as the answer to feeding the world. No wonder, then, that there is a strong and vibrant counter movement, coming from the grassroots level as well as allies in the NGO community. Today, that movement has coalesced around the promotion of “agroecology” as an antidote to the “industrial food system”. The words have changed, and so has the context. But it’s still the same battle as when we fought the original Green Revolution.
What’s concerning today is a tendency, on the side of movements and their allies, to try to leverage the same money and actors who are driving the problem as a platform or stepping stone to the solution. Very often we hear people saying that the task is not just to stop the funding of industrial agriculture (today’s equivalent of the Green Revolution), but to put those funds to work for agroecology or small farmers “instead”. The same is happening in the climate debate, where so many campaign calls are about mobilising money – through debt cancellation, carbon taxes, reparations or as an obligation under the Paris Agreement – and moving it into renewables “instead” of fossil fuels.
While it’s absolutely true that money is needed to move many initiatives forward, this binary kind of thinking – as if it were a matter of flipping a switch – can depoliticise the issue and turn it into a trap. Money, like technology, is not neutral. Nor are the actors who develop, own or simply transfer it. Institutions, in particular, are anything but neutral. Whether you consider the World Bank, Goldman Sachs or BlackRock, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller or IFAD, or the French, Japanese or British government, the money they move is attached to an agenda. It’s fundamentally political. You can’t just tweak an agenda, move the money in a different direction and now things are “good”. That doesn’t work.
We learned this long ago, together with allies, fighting the original Green Revolution research institutes and their funders. The research centres’ solution to destroying biodiversity through the massive spread of their uniform seeds was to build genebanks. Yet genebanks carried huge problems. They were centralised. They tried to freeze seeds which are alive. They were inaccessible to farmers, as they were chiefly set up to serve scientists. And they were seen as a slap in the face to communities from whom the seeds were originally taken (without people’s consent or knowledge). We argued that the only way to really conserve diversity, in a manner that is both scientifically sensible and politically just, is on farmers’ fields, under their own control. After many years, the Green Revolution institutes seemed to agree. But that meant them now taking “on-farm conservation”, as they called it, go fundraising, set up some programmes (which they didn’t know the first thing about) and then claim they are doing it. It was never more than a drop in the bucket! But it got them more money, more power and a new legitimacy, because now they embraced the critiques and were up to speed with social demands.
There are so many iterations of this scenario with other actors and in other settings. Result? In our experience, it was a waste of time. We learned that you can’t take a bad actor, point it in a new direction or give it a new programme, and expect it to do good. While institutions and people change, they are deeply entrenched in origins, roots and history – and those things do not go away.
The danger of depoliticisation
The logic of flipping agendas is also potentially dangerous. For it can take attention away from the real source of the problem: capitalism and the inequality it generates. Instead of addressing power and really changing where it lies and how it works, we may just move some money in a different direction, almost as if money were the solution itself.
Many people argue that we cannot just work “against” the forces driving industrial agriculture, from pension funds to patent laws. They say we have to push a positive agenda as well, be that agroecological research or farmers’ rights. We agree, but we need to do both. We will never succeed in pushing the right agenda unless we address the source of the problem. Big foundations like Rockefeller or Gates, agribusiness giants like Nestlé, Syngenta or Cargill and development banks like the Netherlands’ FMO or France’s Proparco arguably should not exist. The vast concentration of power and wealth that they represent – because of capitalism, colonialism and racial injustice – is what we have to move away from. That does not mean adding an agroecology agenda to their vast operations or putting some of their funds into small farmers’ movements.
In challenging the industrial food system, like the climate emergency, let’s make sure we address the source of the problem, not work around it or, worse, with it.
Banner image: The Green Revolutionaries changed the structure of the rice, and later wheat, plant by breeding semi-dwarf varieties that would not topple over if you applied nitrogen fertiliser to them. In 1966, US President Lyndon Johnson visited the International Rice Research Institute, alongside Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, to see the "miracle rice" for himself. Photo: Rockefeller Archive Center