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October 24, 2011

A Swiss organic farming training manual for Africa, funded by the Gates and Syngenta foundations: are organic agriculture’s promoters selling out to their ideological foes?

by Chido Makunike

A new organic farming manual for trainers of African farmers has been published by the Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL.) It is hoped that the African Organic Agriculture Training Manual will ‘’encourage application of new technologies for sustainable agriculture.‘’  

FiBL has a solid reputation in the promotion of organic agriculture. There is also no serious doubt that some variation of organic agriculture is what the vast majority of African farmers employ. Any initiatives to improve their efforts must be considered welcome.

There are some who pooh-pooh organic agriculture as part of the reason for low productivity in African farming. However, until the critics also provide realistic answers to how to widely avail African farmers of fertilizers and other external inputs, these remain mere ivory tower arguments.

According to a September 29 2011 media release, ‘’the manual is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.’’   

The Gates Foundation has thrust itself to the center of developments in African agriculture, to mixed views. It has carefully distanced itself from charges that it is an advance army for the introduction of GM technology, still an emotive issue in much of Africa. But these denials are considerably weakened by the foundation’s investments in Monsanto, the leading commercial force in GM seed technology. In the minds of some, fairly or unfairly, it becomes very difficult to separate the Gates Foundation’s philanthropic activities in African agriculture from its stake in Monsanto’s commercial activities, despite the foundation’s protests that the two are entirely separate and unrelated. 

Syngenta may have a ‘sustainable agriculture foundation,’ but its fame is as a purveyor of synthetic agro-chemicals, which even supporters and users would have a hard time convincingly arguing can be considered ‘sustainable.’ Not as well known is that it is also a significant player in the development of GM seeds.

For now, Africa may constitute a relatively small market for GM technology and agro-chemicals, but this could change explosively in coming years. It is hardly surprising that companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are positioning themselves for the windfall if and when that happens.  

Sometime during the work of compiling the manual, which FiBL on its website said begun in 2009, the organization said it was a ;‘a collaboration of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), National African Organic Agricultural Movements (NOAMs) and agricultural experts from all parts of Africa.’'

Given the foregoing, it is easy to see why the Gates and Syngenta Foundations would be happy to be associated with such a training manual. On a simple philanthropic level, it must be assumed that they are glad to assist with an effort that addresses where many African farmers they hope might be their future customers are now in their farming developarly as ideological as many activists who claim to speak on their behalf. The small but growing farmer of today may well be the purchaser of hybrid or GM seed tomorrow, or of herbicides.  

The Gates and Sygnenta foundations can likely also count on the quite considerable benefit of association with the chain of organizations said to have been involved in putting together the manual.

Whatever criticisms there are of it, organic agriculture is undoubtedly a politically correct cause in Africa, unlike GM seeds and agrochemicals. For the Gates and Syngenta foundations, funding a training manual for organic farming in Africa is a low bucks, high-return way to be linked to a sexy, feel-good cause. It can to some extent be used effectively to offset the negative associations (fair or unfair) of being perceived by some as greedy commercial interests wanting to make poor African farmers dependent on expensive, inappropriate proprietary seed and chemical technologies.  

That the organic farming manual is said to have been put together with the input of many ostensibly on-the-ground organizations obviously adds to its cachet for those who fund it. 

But if the many benefits for the Gates and Syngenta foundations of funding the manual seem fairly obvious, it is not quite as easy to see why the beneficiaries who put together the manual would accept funding that seems at best highly controversial. If the donor foundations have much to gain, the recipient organizations would seem to have at least as much to lose by being perceived by some as having been compromised and ‘bought’ by their ideological opponents.

According to the ‘principles of organic agriculture,’ the voluntary practitioners of this type of farming accept that it does not, cannot go hand in hand with the use of GM seeds and most synthetic agrochemicals. While the Gates and Syngenta foundations may deliberately sell what they support very broadly, FiBL and its manual-compiling partners would seem to have a set of defining beliefs that would put them fundamentally at odds with Syngenta, and arguably also with a good part of the work of the Gates Foundation, particularly (but not only) if the Monsanto shareholding angle is taken into account.

Formal organic agriculture is not taken terribly seriously by most African governments as a significant contributor to the continent’s farming and economy, despite the frequently heard ‘organic agriculture can feed the world’ mantra. It is mostly treated as the default position from which Africa must move on. Arguably, lobbying/advocacy for organic agriculture to be better understood and supported by African governments is its most pressing need, rather than yet another pretty training manual.

One also wonders if African farmers are not a lot more knowledgeable than many activists repeatedly think them to be, as shown by how many ‘projects’ to supposedly help them are structured. Very often, the major stumbling block for small scale farmers to making big productivity gains is not so much lack of know-how of techniques appropriate to them, but lack of the means to apply them. PDF training manuals do nothing to address this.       

Many ‘sustainable agriculture’ proponents/GM opponents seemed to have been caught off guard by Kenya’s recent open embrace of GM maize imports, with local cultivation not far off. However you soften the blow, this was a huge setback for GM opponents, of whom the promoters of organic agriculture would have been expected to be in the lead.

Yet a curious aspect of the aftermath of Kenya’s announcement was the deafening silence of some of the leading African and other proponents/defenders of organic agriculture. A few did raise their heads, but many seem to have curiously lost their voices.   

Africa is clearly going to use a mix of agricultural technologies to try and meet its food and economic needs. It is helpful and useful for understanding the range of choices on offer when their various proponents can speak clearly and independently, so the competing pros and cons can be well understood and evaluated for appropriateness.

When proponents of organic agriculture accept funding support from pushers of methodologies that have hitherto been said to be fundamentally incompatible with organic farming, it sends very confusing signals. Perhaps more ominously, it suggests a chilling of what should be free, open and robust debate on the different agricultural development pathways on offer.    

Perhaps the new FiBL organic farming training manual will help some African farmers, if there really is a significant number who don’t understand the importance of weeding, how to make compost, and why/how to apply mulch. But does the odd-seeming source of the FiBL manual’s funding not represent a retreat, a capitulation, a surrender to monied interests whose methods negate a lot of the core of what organic agriculture is said to stand for?

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