AGRA – a blunt philanthropic arrow

Nnimmo Bassey

It is a common saying that when a man has a hammer in his hand every problem appears to be a nail. It takes a wise man to know that a hammer is just one of the tools in the craftsman’s box. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made money from technology and it is understandable that they should think that problems can always be solved with a technological fix.

Nor does it come as a surprise that the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations should plan to jointly plough $150 million into their so-called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Tragically, the biotech solutions proposed by AGRA are likely to deepen rather than solve problems of hunger, poverty and malnutrition in Africa.

The Gates Foundation has recently taken on scientists from the biotech industry, and it is expected to fund projects in areas such as biotechnology to improve seeds and crop yields; fertilizer, irrigation and other farm management systems; access to markets; and advocacy for improved agricultural policies. They may claim otherwise, but the idea of AGRA is anchored around agricultural modern biotechnology or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yet, genetically modified crops, on the admission of the US Department of Agriculture, do not give better yields than conventional crops. In addition, the plan’s entire framework would turn African farm practices on their heads, wiping out local knowledge and creating more poverty, more hunger and strange new diseases.

What is not being said is that people are not going hungry today because of insufficient food production. Indeed, it is generally agreed that there is enough food in the world to meet everyone’s basic needs (an action plan adopted in March by ministers of the Economic Community of West African States admits that food production in West Africa has doubled over the last 20 years and that only 19 per cent of food needs are met from imports).

So what’s the real reason behind the emphasis on biotechnology? The biotech industry has invested hugely in attempts to penetrate Africa – through food aid channels and other channels of assistance as well as commercial routes. However, the food aid channel blew up in the face of the industry and that of the World Food Programme in 2002 when Zambia rejected genetically modified corn as food aid.

AGRA’s biotech thrust is wrong-headed: rather than solving problems of hunger and poverty in Africa, it will deepen them. Genetically modified crops create dependence on chemicals such as herbicides as some varieties are engineered to be herbicide tolerant, which often leads to the emergence of super-weeds. Efforts at popularizing GMOs by both USAID and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture have been carried out in circles that excluded critical opinion. Wherever contrasting views have been elicited, local people and farmers generally reject this technology. AGRA’s suggestion that Africa needs a Green Revolution does not appear to have considered the many pitfalls of that revolution.

Efforts at introducing GMOs in Africa have so far yielded poor returns. To take just one example, that of cassava engineered to overcome the cassava leaf mosaic disease: this has so far failed, and there are already non-GM varieties that do withstand the disease. Why waste resources that could be better used to strengthen agricultural production in Africa drawing on the rich pool of local knowledge and ensuring food sovereignty, as demanded by farmers and civil society groups at the recent forum in Selingue, Mali? Africa is not seeking handouts in order to improve her agricultural production systems. And certainly not a push towards a so-called Green Revolution baptized in chemical fertilizers and other imported inputs. African farmers, along with peasants around the world, are seeking respect for their right to decide on what to plant and how to plant it as well what to eat and how.

Agriculture means far more than mechanical multiplication of seeds. It is the basis of the African’s life. It provides the platform for cultural, religious, economic and even political relations. If the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations wish to extend the hand of fellowship to the African continent, they should move away from strategies that favour monoculture, lead to land-grabs, and tie local farmers to the shop doors of biotech seed monopolies. Instead, they can assist in the development of rural infrastructure such as roads and water supplies, and education to empower the younger generation in the study of useful science.

Nnimmo Bassey is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria. Email

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