New Internationalist

Partners by accident?

I’ve never had faith in what lay behind the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s charitable works in Africa.

And so the disclosure that the Foundation has directly invested up to $21 million in genetically modified (GM) agrobusiness giant Monsanto came as confirmation that all was not always well with this pair of billionaire do-gooders.

While I am not so naïve as to imagine that such wealth is built without sullying the waters of ethics, there is always a choice – and they chose to make a bad one. So what’s wrong with Monsanto? Everything, and more.

What’s development got to do with it?

Dr Phil Bereano of the University of Washington says the Foundation’s investment in Monsanto is problematic on several levels.

‘First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers,’ he said. ‘Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests.’

At what point did the Gates Foundation decide to make the connection between their funding of agro-development and investment in Monsanto?

I cannot help but think this is not accidental, but part of a long-term plan.

After all, biotechnology is not new in Africa. In 2005, Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Nigeria wrote a piece titled ‘Conned with Corn’ in which he describes the ‘onslaught of the biotech industry’ in Africa as a modern day ‘scramble for Africa’.

GM food has been presented as the ultimate weapon against hunger in Africa and the world. It may well be that this direction is being crafted for the future.

African leaders have largely been co-opted into thinking this way because they were warned that since the ‘Green Revolution train’ left Africa standing at the station, they should not miss the gene train. It has been noted that the Green Revolution was not all perfect. Yes, food production rose in some areas, but small-scale farmers were marginalized, the environment took a beating and overall world hunger increased.

Zambia stands up

Zambia is one African country that refused to accept GM foods or crops. Its case demonstrated that, in the words of Bassey, ‘every country has the sovereign right to determine what type of food to eat, irrespective of whether it is purchased in the market or donated as aid.’

Zambia banned GM food in 2002 following scientific research on its implications. Three years later, it was reported that the country was facing a drought and needed 200,000 tons of maize immediately. The US then pressured Zambia to import GM food.

The pushers: Monsanto and USAID. They are no first-timers: for example, Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton, called Bt Cotton, has been planted in India and South Africa. Monsanto claimed it was a great success, but in fact many farmers reported record-low yields and mounting debts. Monsanto and USAID are now pushing Bt Cotton to Tanzania, which will join Tunisia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Kenya in conducting field trials.

The food and crops: GM food is being sent to Africa, Asia and Latin America as food aid. Example: in 2003, Nigeria received 11,000 metric tons of soy meal as food aid from the US under the title ‘Food for Progress’. Taking into account that more than half of soybeans in the US are GM, it is quite likely that Nigeria has been receiving GM food through the back door, so to speak. Another example is Latin America, where corn varieties not authorized for human consumption have been found in food aid sent in 2002 and in 2005.

Sounds familiar?

A more recent example which cannot have been missed by the Gateses is Haiti in May 2010. Five months after the earthquake which killed up to 250,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, Monsanto sent 475 tons of seeds in an aid package to Haitian farmers.

They clearly thought that hungry people would accept any food, even food that would kill them. But the Haitians refused.

Those seeds are patented by Monsanto. This means they can’t be reused, so farmers who accept them will become forever dependent on Monsanto.

Isn’t it a bit like Microsoft? At least in the early days, it had a monopoly on operating systems and software for all IBM clone machines.

One could say this kind of consumer lock-in is familiar to the Gateses.

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