Agribusiness Wins, Small Scale Farmers Lose.
Ann Garrison interviews Timothy Wise on why US-style corporate agriculture pushed by billionaire Bill Gates has been disastrous for Africa.
“The number of hungry people in those 13 countries actually rose by 30% to 131 million people.”
Fourteen years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the stated goal of doubling productivity and incomes by 2020 for 30 million small-scale farming households while reducing food insecurity by half in 20 countries. AGRA claims success, but a broad-based civil society alliance has just published “False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA),” in which they conclude that the number of Africans suffering extreme hunger has increased by 30 percent in the 13 countries that AGRA eventually focused on. I spoke to researcher and writer Timothy A. Wise, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and author of the book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. His background paper, “Failing Africa’s Farmers,” laid the groundwork for the critical publication.
Ann Garrison: Timothy Wise, this is a scientific story, but can you summarize, in layman’s terms, what happened?
Timothy Wise: Sure. The Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa in 2006 with ambitious goals. They were setting out to double incomes and crop productivity by 2020 in 13 African nations that they considered to have great agricultural potential. Since then they’ve spent a billion dollars to impose all the inputs used by our own corporatized, industrialized agriculture in Africa. These include commercial seeds, petrochemical fertilizers, and pesticides—the kind of high-tech agriculture that we’re used to here. And it was backed by African governments who spent huge sums on subsidies to farmers so they could buy all those expensive inputs.
AG: Let me stop you for a moment just to make sure we understand. If African governments were giving farmers money to buy seeds, petrochemical fertilizers, and pesticides, what were the Gates Foundation and its partners spending $1 billion on?
TW: AGRA gives grants to government, non-governmental, and even private-sector projects to further the spread and adoption of these technologies. For example, they have focused on getting so-called agro-dealers set up in rural areas to sell those high-tech inputs.
AG: How much of AGRA’s budget did the Gates Foundation pay for? And how much of it was paid for by AGRA’s partners ?
TW: The Gates foundation has provided about two-thirds of the billion dollars AGRA has spent so far. The rest comes from other foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation, a partner in launching AGRA, and from donor governments and some private sector partners.
AG: Who are the civil society partners who have just published this critique of AGRA, and what might we want to understand about them?
TW: It is a coalition of African and European non-governmental organizations that have campaigned for a shift in development priorities to agro-ecology and other sustainable practices. They include The Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, Bread for the World (Germany ), F IAN [For the Right to Food and Nutrition] (Germany) , The German NGO Forum on the Environment and Development, INKOTA (Germany), IRPAD (Mali), PELUM ( Zambia ), Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Germany and South Africa), Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, and T Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement.
AG: You say that there’s been very little accountability as to how AGRA spent a billion dollars.
TW: There’s been no public evaluation of what all that money has achieved, not from AGRA or Gates, which is a real failure of accountability. So we sought to fill that gap with this study. We were stunned to learn how little has been achieved with so much money. Productivity growth in the 14 years since AGRA set its goals, which were supposed to come due in 2020, was very low. Yields of the staple crops that farmers rely on rose just 18% in that 14-year period. AGRA’s goal was to push them up by 100%.
AG: CropsReview.com defines a staple food as “one that is regularly consumed in large quantities to form the basis of a traditional diet and which serves as a major source of energy and nutrients.” It also says that “ninety percent of the world’s food energy intake comes from a mere 15 crops with rice, corn and wheat contributing two-thirds of this.” So when you say that these are the crops farmers “rely on,” do you mean that they rely on them for income or rely on them to feed their families?
TW: AGRA claimed to be targeting small-scale farmers with its programs. They are mostly growing crops for food but selling surpluses on local markets. Staples vary from country to country. Corn is a staple crop in many countries, but other more nutritious staples include millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, and leguminous crops like cowpeas.
AG: What sort of productive relationships are involved in the AGRA context? Are we talking about small farms worked by a single family, cooperative farms, or larger farms whose owners employ farm laborers? Or some sort of mix?
TW: Mostly small family farms working less than five acres of land, though it seems AGRA’s costly high-tech inputs get more uptake from wealthier farmers, those who are already established commercial farmers.
AG: OK, before I stopped you to clarify those few points, you were saying that you were shocked by how much AGRA spent to produce so little.
TW: Yes, even yields of corn—one of the crops that AGRA most supported—rose just 29% in 14 years. And that came at the expense of other important food crops like sorghum, millet, sweet potato, and cassava. And the sad part of the story is that even with production rising, rural poverty remained high. And the number of hungry people in those 13 countries actually rose by 30% to 131 million people. So our report shows that AGRA is failing on its own terms.
AG: That sounds worse than failure on anyone’s terms. You refer to Rwanda as “Africa’s Hungry Poster Child” because it’s a nation that AGRA counts as a success even though the people there are hungrier than ever. In 2010, I spoke to then presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire—before she went to prison for the next eight years—and she didn’t name AGRA as an aggressor, but she did describe destructive agricultural policy much as you have. She said that traditional subsistence crops have been sacrificed for cash crops, especially corn, which mostly benefit elite urban traders and leaves Rwandans with less and less to eat.
TW: The former presidential candidate was exactly right. That is what’s come to pass under Rwandan Agriculture Minister Agnes Kalibata as Rwanda has focused more and more on increasing corn production. They did quadruple corn production with subsidies and authoritarian measures such as fining farmers who failed to switch to corn, but the number of hungry Rwandans increased by half a million between 2006 and 2018. All those subsidies for corn drove land out of the more nutritious crops like sorghum and sweet potatoes, key staples that offer far more nutrition than corn, and that leaves farmers more vulnerable to climate change. Sacrificing crop diversity sacrifices their families’ diet diversity, and when drought hits their corn crop they have nothing to fall back on. Monocropping also degrades their soil over the long term, as the soil grows more acidic with repeated applications of petrochemical fertilizers.
Agnes Kalibata rode this specious success of quadrupling corn production to become the president of AGRA, but our report shows that overall staple crop yields increased a meager 24% in 14 years, and AGRA had promised a 100% increase.
AG: The idea behind this would seem to be that when farmers produce higher yields of corn for market, they will earn more income that they will then be able to use to buy foodstuffs they’re no longer growing themselves, but that apparently hasn’t happened. As Victoire said, the profits have gone instead to elite urban traders. Am I right in imagining that those traders typically control the price of the farmers’ product?
TW: That is often the case. The bigger problem is that even with subsidies, farmers have to pay every year for seeds they used to save from year to year and for fertilizer, which is very expensive. Most farmers do not grow enough extra corn to make back those costs. This can leave them in debt if there is a bad harvest. In Malawi, we found that yield increases would have to be three times greater than AGRA is producing just to pay for a year’s inputs. The Green Revolution just doesn’t pay off for most small-scale farmers, especially without subsidies.
AG: I can’t imagine there are supermarkets, like those we know, in the Rwandan and other African countrysides, and if fewer and fewer farmers are growing much besides corn, then the farmers’ markets must be suffering too, no?
TW: Rural Africa has not lost its food cultures and traditions, and they are trying to conserve their traditional crops and seeds in the face of this Green Revolution onslaught. In Rwanda, the pushback from farmers has forced the government to relax some of its strict rules favoring corn, so traditional crops are making a small comeback.
AG: The other entities benefiting from this would seem to be the international corporations selling seeds, petrochemical fertilizers, and pesticides in African markets kicked open by AGRA, no?
TW: Yes. Monsanto and the other multinational seed companies are all there, benefiting from sales they never would have had without subsidies. Seed and fertilizer companies are the clear winners from these policies.
AG: What was it that Michael Pollen said about fossil fuel-based agriculture?
TW: Looking at US corn, he said we are basically “eating oil,” because our corn grows with such heavy applications of fertilizers made from natural gas. They are a fossil-fuel input, as are many pesticides and other agro-chemicals. With climate change increasingly impacting farmers in Africa, it is crazy that donors are actively campaigning to increase farmers’ dependence on fossil-fuel inputs. AGRA may call it “climate-smart agriculture,” but dissident African farmers call it “climate-stupid agriculture.”
AG: I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Bill Gates imagines big technology monopolies will solve the world’s problems.
TW: He made his money as a technology monopolist, from Microsoft, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his solutions to the world’s problems put big technology corporations at the center. The Gates Foundation claims to be very scientific and data-driven, very results-oriented, so AGRA’s failures, after $660 million in Gates funding, should really prompt a reconsideration of such policies.
AG: Africans in the organizations you’ve worked with call this neocolonial agriculture, don’t they?
TW: They do, because again developed country “experts” are coming to Africa with their solutions to Africa’s problems, pushing theirindustrial technologies, and promoting crops like corn that the United States and other rich countries know how to grow, at least as industrial commodities.
AG: Is AGRA pushing GMOs?
TW: Most African governments do not permit genetically modified crops, so for now the seeds they are promoting are conventional so-called hybrid seeds developed by crop breeders, the kinds of seeds farmers have to buy every year. Gates and others are clearly trying to open the door to GMOs, pushing reforms to seed laws through the Africa n Regional Intellectual Property Organization and other initiatives.
AG: What else would you like a lay audience to understand about this for now?
TW: Well, our food systems are at a crossroads. Climate change and now the coronavirus have highlighted the fragility of long supply chains and dependence on commercial and imported seeds and on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The last thing we should be doing is forcing our own failing fossil fuel-based agriculture on African countries.
Our report shows that AGRA has led to weak productivity growth and rising hunger, and African farmers want something different. Groups like the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa are demanding a shift in all that support for failing Green Revolution policies to policies that help local farmers improve native seeds and adopt sustainable practices using local resources. They call for “food sovereignty,” policies that put communities and countries in a position to determine their own food choices. Many studies have shown that such practices generate higher productivity while increasing farmers’ incomes and food security. Exactly what AGRA is failing to do.
The United Nations has scheduled a Global Food Summit for June 2021 to address the crisis in our food systems. Global hunger has increased in each of the last five years. Unfortunately, Agnes Kalibata, the former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture who is now the president of AGRA, has been chosen to chair the summit as the UN’s special envoy. Her failures in Rwanda and her leadership of a failing AGRA really should disqualify her from that role. Farmers and food consumers need a profound and sustainable transformation of our food systems that she is in no way prepared to lead.
AG: Is there a movement to wrest control of this UN Summit from AGRA and the fossil fuel-based, industrial agriculture profiteers?
TW: A wide range of civil society organization has demanded that the UN hit the reset button, particularly with the COVID-19 crisis. The food summit was proposed because “business as usual” in our food systems is no longer an option. With AGRA and Kalibata in charge, and the World Economic Forum and its well-heeled corporate members sponsoring the summit, the World Food Summit will just be agribusiness as usual.
AG: We’ll have to touch base again about how this is going as this 2021 UN World Food Summit draws closer.
TW: Thank you, we are indeed at a crossroads, and Africa has the opportunity to avoid taking its farmers and consumers down our failed path of industrialized agriculture.
Timothy A. Wise is a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. He contributed to the report “False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.”
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please help to support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann-at-anngarrison.com.