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article imageIs the Gates Foundation helping or hindering food shortages?

By Kimberley Pollock     Mar 1, 2011 in Food
With world food prices rising the Gates Foundation has announced $70 million to fund research into threats to food production in the developing world but are they funding the right projects?
The Gates Foundation has formed a co-funding partnership with the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) and they will work together to identify and fund research and projects that help small farmers increase their yields and incomes.
The UK's DFID will contribute $32 million over the next five years to the effort. In the joint Media Release the UK's International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, said:
“For many of the poorest people in Africa and Southern Asia, the crops they grow not only provide most of their food but also an important source of income. It’s these people who are hit hardest by food price spikes. Working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we can drive new ways to make direct improvements in people’s lives, whether by making disease-resistant crops more widely available so that small-scale farmers can grow and sell more, or by developing crops with added nutritional benefits that will give their families a better diet.”
The announcement has come at a time when concerns about world food supplies are being raised in many countries around the world. In January, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) price index hit an all-time high with everything except meat surging in price. The FAO have also warned that further increases are possible in the near future.
One of the key projects that will be funded by the new collaboration is a US$40 million project at Cornell University that is researching wheat varieties that are resistant to emerging strains of stem rust disease. The Foundation says this research is particularly important because wheat represents approximately 30 percent of the world’s production of grain crops and nearly half of that production is harvested in developing countries. Successfully protecting these wheat supplies is considered critical to global food security.
According to Reuters the Gates Foundation has a long history in agricultural development, spending over $2 billion for projects in developing countries including partnering with agricultural industry heavy weights Monsanto and Cargill.
The Seattle Times
reports the Gates Foundation bought 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock between April and June 2010 to a total value of $27.6 million.
This may be small change for the Gates's and their Foundation but it is seen as a conflict of interest to activist groups such as the Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ). In December 2010 CAGJ sent a petition letter to the Gates Foundation signed by 60 organizations and 40 academics and scientists from around the world. The CAGJ Media Release says:
The letter to the Foundation condemns the industrial approach to agriculture and high-tech ‘fixes’ like genetic engineering because they undermine sustainable, resilient food systems that are controlled by local populations. Local systems actually mitigate climate change while the spread of industrial agriculture is one of the heaviest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and loss of plant biodiversity worldwide, thus directly fueling the climate crisis.
The letter uses compelling evidence to support this argument in the form of a 2008 report that resulted from a comprehensive survey of global agriculture commissioned and funded by the United Nations and World Bank. According to CAGJ, "the report unequivocally concludes that feeding the hungry and protecting the environment will require moving away from resource-extractive industrial agriculture and toward agroecological methods of farming".
The letter also quotes reports on organic farming that state organic production is more energy efficient, creates more jobs and stores vast amounts of carbon in the soil. Anne Maina of the African Biodiversity Network said in the CAGJ Media Release, “the Gates Foundation must recognize that false solutions such as GMOs and agrofuels that threaten our biodiversity will further Africa’s exploitation, not salvation".
Whether the Gates Foundation has a conflict of interest or not there certainly seems strong evidence for what CAGJ refers to as "real solutions to hunger and climate change" that are "rooted in food sovereignty, the right of peoples and communities to define and control their own food and agriculture systems".
The only problem being, activists and local community groups in Africa are fighting economic powerhouses with billions of dollars in resources. But there is resistence reports Nombulelo Siqwana-Ndulo on the website. He says:
South African farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the deception that GM seeds and technologies will bring development and pull them out of poverty, as their experiences have not born out these claims. In populations with low literacy levels, the farmers are given little or no information about the effects of planting GM seeds, until it is too late, that is.
There is no doubt that the Gates Foundation does some wonderful work but one could also ask, if they truly want to bring food security to Africa and the world, shouldn't they be working with community groups as well as, if not instead of, aggressive agricultural heavy weights like Monsanto and Cargill.
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