The Gates Foundation Invests in GMO Research in Africa

The Gates Foundation is normally known for its work eradicating malaria and polio through innovative methods. Recently however, it has joined hands with Monsanto, Cargill and other agri-biotech companies to push GM-research. Back in 2009, Tom Philpott wrote a piece urging Bill Gates not to endorse GMO but the sound advice has gone unheeded. Fast Company reports that the Gates Foundation has invested $11.9 million in research towards a Virus-Resistant Cassava strain for Africa.

Cassava is a highly-drought resistant staple food for over 200 million sub-Saharan Africans. However, over a third of the harvest is lost each year to Cassava Mosaic Disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease. The project’s objective is to use gene silencing to create disease resistant plants. While the goal of disease-resistant cassava is certainly worthy, dabbling with GM technology leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

The Gates Foundation has many powerful collaborations with USAID and the US State Department. The collaboration has raised many eyebrows because it so far removed from the Foundation’s goal of sustainable development. The recent Wikileaks cables revealed that the Department of State has virtually become an agency for promoting the private interests of the Monsanto Corporation.

Eric Holt Gimenez wrote in the Huffington Post that the association of the Gates Foundation with Monsanto is not an accident and that many leading officials at AGRA are former Monsanto executives. The Gates Foundation’s purchase of  500,000 Monsanto shares at the price of $23M is proof of that.  Holt Gimenez goes on to say:

Africa’s seeds are a potential windfall investment for Monsanto. Regardless of the philanthropic side of its intentions, cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of AGRA, the Gates Foundation is moving stealthily opening African seed market to global corporations. When the research, extension, and U.S. foreign aid is all in place Monsanto will swoop in for the feast.

GM technology has been connected with many unintended consequences but it is rapidly infringing on every aspect of world agriculture. I wonder what the scenario would be if this huge pile of money had been diverted towards organic agriculture, which seems to be more in tune with the Gates Foundation’s ideals. A 2008 paper by the FAO states that organic agriculture can indeed help African farmers:

Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously.  Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress. 

Has Bill Gates read this report? GM simply does not work as a long term solution. A Forbes article echoed the same sentiment, adding that GM crops can create a new strain of super-bugs. According to a recent Bloomberg news report, rootworms in Iowa are showing resistance to Monsanto corn. New York Times writes about farmers having to cope with Roundup-resistant weeds.

According to an article in The Guardian:

There is, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State’s model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of “feeding the world”

We need to be moving in the opposite direction of industrial agriculture. A really wise person once said that we cannot expect to solve the world’s problems by using the same thinking that created them. Using GM-technology does exactly this. Agri-biotech companies are doing everything they can to push their technology wider and further, the last thing that needs to happen is for organizations like the Gates Foundation to support them.

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net