Billions of dollars are invested in projects geared towards maintaining the status quo and flogging biotechnological solutions: Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation has made sustainable development into an inexhaustible source of profit.
By Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International
Public subsidies, tax concessions, lobbying actions, philanthropic enterprises. The economic interests moving within industrial agriculture are enormous, and continue to slow the phase of ecological transition which is developing thanks to a push from the bottom-up. This comes from grassroots actions, in areas where agroecological initiatives are constantly on the increase. Most recently, the interference of industrial lobbies became apparent through the European Parliament’s proposal for a Common Agricultural Policy, which is fundamentally aligned with big business interests and averse to those of small-scale ecological agriculture. And this is in the face of the Green New Deal and the Commission’s professed targets around biodiversity conservation and the 50% reduction of pesticide use by 2030. So it is time to get to know some of the main players in this resistance to change. Players who appear in the media, which are often likewise subject to their influence, as champions of humanity and sustainable development.
In analysing the story of one particular foundation – possibly the agriculture sector’s most influential, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) – it is possible to understand the mechanisms of this nasty, self-sufficient system. It operates within the framework of a brilliant masterpiece of artificial crop resilience, through the ‘smart’ use of huge levels of private capital, and the simultaneous bypassing of public capital. The NGO run by Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has become one of the most significant players on the global geopolitical board over the past few years, and in the very definition of our future agriculture. Gates is one of the richest men in the world, with a net worth of around 117 billion dollars. With the ability to shape global policies through a dense network of relationships in big business, the foundation, despite the statements it has issued in support of a sustainable model of development, stands as one of the most interested parties in the maintenance of the status quo. This is true chiefly with regard to agriculture, leaving the whole concept of ‘innovation’ in the sector in the hands of businesses and start-up technologies.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Navdanya International, the organisation founded by Vandana Shiva, actually dedicated its latest report to the BMGF. The old principles of the green revolution marry up with Gates’ futuristic imaginings, promising biotechnological solutions to every problem. Essentially a sort of Green Revolution 4.0. The protection of the interests of agribusiness giants manifests both through an uninhibited policy of intellectual property defence, and through a blindly optimistic narrative launched by governments, who are simply too complacent, which is then conveyed by the media. These media outlets are often financed by the foundation itself. A handy system for the growth of the market economy and chiefly for the business of the foundation’s partners, who need to invest in that very market. And we could add that there is no way that it could be otherwise, considering that the BMGF’s trustee fund has formed partnerships and wrought investments in society over the years which function in the ultra-processed food production sector; in mass-scale food distribution; in biotechnology and in the digitalisation of agriculture such as, among others, Monsanto, Walmart, Kraft Foods, Coca Cola, Pepsico, McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum, Caterpillar and so many more.
When global development becomes a vast source of profit, it needs to don the smiling mask of philanthropy
This could be a shock for those who are used to seeing the image of the American philanthropist sitting under all-singing, all-dancing headlines, praising the common good and solidarity. Then again, as soon as you scratch at the thin veneer of glossy magazines, you can find a rather different story. It is first and foremost the story of a thoroughly corrupt investment capital, often the product of financial speculation and not altogether irreproachable attitudes towards tax. Microsoft’s resort to tax havens, for example, caused fiscal damage higher than the value of Bill Gates’ philanthropic investments. His wealth has done nothing but grow over the past few years, despite his donations. In 2012, a report by the American Senate calculated that Microsoft had managed to stow almost 21 billion dollars in tax havens over a period of three years, a figure roughly equivalent to half of the net income of the USA’s retail sales. Add to that tax gains of 4.5 billion dollars per year. And that’s not all: tax relief and direct public donations to the foundation’s programmes attest to the definitive capitulation of donors, who find themselves reaching into their pockets to benefit initiatives over whom there is no guarantee of democratic supervision.
In short, there is no need to scramble for conspiracy theories. The BMGF’s strategies are clearly and explicitly characterised by the export of a business model which aims to equate the interests of their own donors or of organisations with the foundation’s areas of investment. Funding an aid plan in a less economically-developed country means implementing partnerships between the public and private sectors; opening up the markets of the countries in question, entrusting their keys to a swarm of multinational corporations who hoard new sources of profit by cheering a sort of optimistic and benevolent technocratic solutionism. Such a paradigm suggests that for every problem created by the industrial model of development, a technological solution is possible.
Is international development the new El-Dorado of profits for corporations from the Global North? Bill Gates, personally wealthier than 45 of the 48 nations of Sub-Saharan African, has conceived an apparently perfect model. It is capable of making practically everyone happy, from the governments who receive aid to the donors who, rewarded by supplementary tax benefits, can continue to do business while also pinning the badge of ‘saviours of humanity’ to their lapels. A ‘win-win’ operation, to use the trade’s lingo, which does, however – and it could not be otherwise – leave a few losers trailing behind.
What do the ‘beneficiaries’ of these interventions actually get out of them? Are governments, in granting free reign to the American magnate and to his ranks of corporate associates, risking the loss of important ingredients of democracy by the wayside?
The matter of the Gates Foundation therefore morphs into a paradigmatic one, exemplary of a model which seeks to govern development for the protection of big business interests. It cloaks these interests in an aura of benevolence which is necessary for masking the failures of a model which has already clearly revealed all of its limitations.The real objective is not actually that of addressing the causes of harm, but rather that of containing them in order to guarantee the survival of the system.
Making food into a commodity and the farmer into a customer: the agriculture at the centre of the Gates’ Foundation’s interests
Agriculture has been singled out by the BMGF as one of the strategic sectors for its actions. A sector which connects directly to the seed, pesticide, packaging and mass-distribution industries, but also to the massive issues of climate change, labour exploitation and workplace illness, to the contamination of soils and aquifer strata. Surrendering public control of such a key sector effectively equates to putting the very future of the planet at risk. The foundation does not seem very interested in embracing agro-ecological models, which have also been recommended by the FAO.
But how is the foundation’s influence on the fate of global agriculture organised? The Navdanya International report identifies a recurrent schema. The enterprises usually start with media campaigns launched by media sources with connections to the Foundation, that indicate a handful of international emergencies. To give an example, there is the increase in agricultural productivity necessary for wiping out hunger in the Global South. The next step is BMGF’S proposal of a technological solution, who start the fundraising work for research institutes and start-ups to meet their objective. These are often accompanied by government support for the same enterprises that have been in the background for a while as objects of lobbying action.That could be for the expansion of funds or for the adaptation of any regulations obstructive to the projects’ implementation. The next stages, from the quote up until the marketing, will presumably be directed by the same organisations that had contributed to the initial fundraising, or directly by start-ups created on an ad-hoc basis.
This approach must base itself on the benevolence of reputable international research institutions. If, as far as healthcare is concerned, the Foundation has secured its hold over WHO, the World Health Organisation, for whom the BMGF constitutes the first private donor, in the agricultural sector the focus lies on the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). We are talking about a consortium of 15 international research centres for whom the Foundation is the primary donor, with around a 105 million dollar donation per year. The CGIAR seed banks currently manage 768,576 farmers’ seed memberships. In their entirety, the CGIAR seed banks represent the world’s largest and most frequently-used collections of crop diversity.
BMGF’S interests in the agricultural sector stems, therefore, from the first link in its chain: the seed. Vandana Shiva, the Indian environmentalist who resides as president of Navdanya International, denounced the Foundation’s attempt to extend control over farmers’ seed heritage, which CGIAR keeps locked up in its private seed banks. ‘Gates has successfully accelerated the transfer of research and of seeds from scientific research institutions to private organisations, to centralise and thereby facilitate the piracy of intellectual property and seed monopolies. He has done so through laws and regulations on intellectual property; beyond taking control of the farmers’ seeds to be found in CGIAR seed banks, Gates (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is raising a lot of money for harvesting seeds from all around the world and keeping them in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic – also known as the Doomsday Vault – which was created to gather and conserve a global collection of the world’s seeds. Its financers other than the BMGF include other big players on the seed market such as CropLife Dupont/Pioneer Hi-bred, KWS and Syngenta’.
But the signs of the Foundation’s disproportionate stake in the matter of seeds do not stop there. The BMGF have actually been funding an international project called ‘Diversity Seek’ since 2015, launched in that year to map the genetic data of seeds kept in seed banks in order to obtain patents. An act of biopiracy according to Shiva, who warns against the new CRISPR technology, ‘The piracy of the common genome data of millions of plants cultivated by farmers takes the name of “big data”. Big data are not knowledge, they are not even information. They are pirated data, namely stolen and privatised’.
The Navdanya report denounces how the Foundation’s moves towards attaining control over seeds through new patents contribute to jeopardising all those treaties and agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the CBD’s Cartagen Protocol on biosecurity; the International Treaty on Genetic Resources; and the Treaty on Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). These have been developed over the course of years in order to protect biodiversity, small-scale farmers and consumers.
The agroecological alternative? Trumped by a Green Revolution 4.0
Up to this point, we have seen how the BMGF foundation functions perfectly in the wake of a model of development based on private enterprise, which is actually funded by the public. For its part, private enterprise is strengthened by the control of intellectual property gained through the patent system. But it is really through direct interventions on the land, those that are immediately visible, that the subscription to the principles of the green revolution manifest themselves, never forgetting their obvious limits and the collateral damage caused by this model over the past few decades. The Foundation seems, however, to be able to operate beyond failure and criticism. And to do so despite the evidence of these failures.
The Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), launched over 13 years ago in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation, constitutes a perfect example of a project which conforms to Gates’ worldview. The BMGF has proposed the ‘modernisation’ of the agricultural sector on the back of the rhetoric of malnutrition and of Africa’s ‘backwardness’ in the technology and infrastructure sectors. A modernisation which, in the words of the Microsoft founder, translate into the implementation of all those precepts of the green revolution strongly criticised even by the FAO. Basing a food production system on monopolies, on GMO’s, on digital agriculture, on pesticides and fertilisers, means opening up new investment opportunities for the agribusiness corporations. We are dealing with interventions planned alongside governments, and with the apathetic local research institutions who, when facing the arrival of new liquid assets, grant a free pass to the Foundation’s conditions. A classic top-down approach which ignores the local population and is bound to further erode food sovereignty in the name of necessary increases in productivity. It will transform the entire project into yet another monopolisation of resources and market control.
The failures of this model are not foreseen precisely as a result of the cloud of vested interests swirling within these supposedly benevolent projects. The absence of transparency about the results of projects is indispensable to the whole philanthropic strategy. However, the big data betray several cracks in the gaudy picture painted by the Foundation, ‘After almost 15 years’, explains Timothy A. Wise, one of the Navdanya report’s authors, ‘there is no evidence of significant increases in productivity, while the number of people suffering from extreme hunger in the nations in question has increased by 30%’.
A surprise? Not really, considering the long series of failures that we have seen in the Green Revolution’s history. Certainly, we cannot say that nothing has changed over these 15 years. As just one example, in 2008, AGRA’s launch year, South Africa was the only African nation to have approved the use of genetically-modified seeds. Subsequently, GM seeds have spread from Egypt to Burkina Faso and to Sudan, while other countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have started to research GM crops. Furthermore, the incentives offered by the Green Revolution for priority crops have pushed farmers to plant mais, to the detriment of traditional, more nutritious crops that are also more climate-resistant, such as millet and sorghum, eating away at food security and nutrition for poorer farmers. Wise exposes that millet production has decreased by 24% and that yields have collapsed by 21% in the years since AGRA.
According to Nicoletta Dentico, one of the report’s other authors, AGRA acts as a real subsidiary of the Foundation in Africa, given the sum of money invested – around 630 million dollars, from its establishment up until the present day, ‘Its faith in genetic engineering’, Dentico explains, ‘is associated with the project to develop an intensive, industrialised system for Africa which would draw in seed businesses and small-scale farmers through agro-commercial platforms. These platforms interact with small and medium-scale firms to provide farmers with hybrid seeds (mais, sorghum, cassava, soy, bananas, rice, sweet potato, beans – AGRA’s major crops), chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.The corporate giant Monsanto is one of the principal beneficiaries, if not the primary beneficiary, of this program. Monsanto’s national manager in Malawi has admitted that all of their seed and herbicide sales are channelled through the platform, with an 85% channelling increase in 2007. Through its network of agricultural retailers, these giants thus morph into the only training and information channel for African farmers who, ironically, cease to be food producers and instead become consumers of goods, cogs in a powerful agricultural machine put in place, like a new “civilising mission”, by the private sector’.
On the flip side, business is business, and rowing against the trends that are establishing themselves over the world – those in favour of a more responsible, equitable and inclusive agriculture – does not appear to graze Gates’ confidence in the least. Quite the opposite. The Foundation seems to want to hone its approach further still, what with a new enterprise called AgOne, launched in January 2020. This new project’s objective? Take the principles of the Green Revolution to its most extreme extent, with the technological perfection of data extraction (data mining) from farmers’ activities, through sensor technology, the gene-drive CRISPR-Cas9 technology applied to seeds and crops, new GMO’s, prediction models based on artificial intelligence, and so on and so forth. IICA, the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation, declared its partnerships not only with BMGF, but with Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva, and Syngenta, at AgOne’s Latin American launch, ‘AgTech’.
BMGF’S investments in ‘accelerating growth and driving innovation in the private sector’, as stated on the organisation’s own site, seem completely in line with Green Revolution 4.0’s philosophy. Among the Foundation’s partners we find AgBiome, a specialist in the development of organic and GM products for crop protection; AgTech Accelerator, a start-up incubator which was launched, among other initiatives, alongside Bayer and Syngenta. Syngenta has recently, for its part, launched Boragen, a start-up focused on the development of synthetic new-gen fungicides and Cropin, a company which is committed to systems of agricultural digitalisation.
A predictable ending to a pre-written story
Albert Einstein used to say that repeating exactly the same actions over and over again and hoping to get a different result is a clear sign of madness. The new Green Revolution wears the cloak of digital technology but it is clear that the cloak hides the same players who brought us to environmental and social catastrophe. They think that they can treat agriculture as a simple source of profits and not as a cultural, social and economic practice inherent to every human society. In the esteemed opinion of the gentlemen of agribusiness, soils are not composed of life and of biodiversity, but are rather empty vessels to fill according to their pleasure, and to manage through external inputs of their own products.
The Green Revolution has not solved the problems that it promised to resolve and, in the meantime, has created new ones. It has stolen away people’s food sovereignty, seeking to transform our food into a commercial product and to make it travel thousands and thousands of kilometres across the world. This model has contributed to the pollution of soils and water sources and to the depletion, if not also to the contamination, of the food which we eat on a daily basis. Damage to the health of the environment and of people are the other face of the dollar-signs flashing from the enormous profits minced out of the enterprise by the multinational corporations operating in the sector. The BMGF burrows itself into this furrow, aiming to add fuel to the fire of agribusiness profits, through a techno-solutionist vision of the existing situation. A dystopian, and, by this point, outdated vision of the world which Navdanya International is exposing and condemning.
Just like the old Green Revolution, the new one cannot boast a list of successes. Philanthropic agri-capitalism does not offer solutions to the wretchedness of a political and economic system to which it is inextricably linked, instead constituting the ultimate degenerate version of that very system. It is based on the accumulation of resources and is now incapable of even imagining alternative criteria for social and environmental justice. Small-scale producers, that ‘peasant agriculture’ which has always been a cornerstone of our land’s social and cultural fabric, is invited to either conform or to disappear. Small-scale farmers are essentially transformed into simple performers of top-down machinations, using only the tools made available to them: hybrid seeds or seeds genetically-modified against fertilisers and pesticides. They then only hand their products over to the distribution chains controlled by those same businesses.
Agroecological alternatives which originate from such regions have managed to scratch away at the ideological barrier posed by agribusiness giants for years, but the strong economic interests still present an obstacle. The BMGF affair speaks of an inequitable system, incapable of departing from extractivist logic, of technological solutionism, of monopolies. Putting the system of tax benefits, of grants and of subsidies which chiefly benefit the same old stakeholders, up for discussion. Essentially, completely rethinking the system of resource allocation in the agricultural sector. Giving ‘peasant farming’, the circular economy, and short supply-chains a boost. These ideas appear to be fundamental steps on the pathway of agroecological transition.
The synthetic biology boom
The synthetic biology industry is booming. It is no longer just a case of junk and heavily-processed food, but also of artificial food. The industry has reached a net worth of 12 billion dollars (of which 3.8 were raised last year alone), and it is predicted that this will double by 2025. Over the past twenty years, the number of businesses specialising in this sector has gone from fewer than 100 in the year 2000, to over 600 this year.
Synthetic biology consists of reconfiguring an organism’s DNA in order to create something completely new, enabling limitless applications in numerous fields. These range from ‘fake meat’ and other ‘fake foods’ to agriculture, to new, engineered primary resources and to pharmaceutical products.
Bill Gates is among the major investors in this sector. His first investments include Beyond Meat, Ginkgo Bioworks and Pivot Bio.
Gates’ climate change investment enterprise, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has invested 3.5 million dollars in Biomilg. This initiative focuses on feeding newborn babies and is seeking to replicate breast milk in the laboratory as an innovative option as we prepare for the impacts of climate change. Biomilg’s patent process is ongoing.