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October 10, 2010

Why is the Gates Foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto?

by John Vidal


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's investments in Monsanto and Cargill have come under heavy criticism. Is it time for the foundation to come clean on its visions for agriculture in developing countries?


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring the Guardian's Global development site is being heavily criticised in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM companyMonsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill.

Trouble began when a US financial website published the foundation's annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.

Seattle-based Agra Watch - a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice - was outraged. "Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa," it thundered.

But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to "develop the soya value chain" in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.

The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world's most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, 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".

The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world's food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?

The foundation has never been upfront about its vision for agriculture in the world's poorest countries, nor the role of controversial technologies like GM. But perhaps it could start the debate here?

In the meantime, it could tell us how many of its senior agricultural staff used to work for Monsanto or Cargill?

The Guardian 

Monsato's response in the comments section below the article:

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 grant-making 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.

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