AGRA Watch challenges Gates Foundation’s claims to support agroecology, made in May 14, 2012 KUOW interview

On May 14, 2012, Roy Steiner, the Gates Foundation’s director for agricultural development, was interviewed on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate.  In an interview focused on the Gates Foundation’s plans to combat hunger in Africa, Steiner spoke about the Foundation’s commitment to finding sustainable solutions for smallholder farmers, and funding projects supporting agroecological methods. AGRA Watch thought it was important to follow-up on these claims, thus Phil Bereano wrote to Steiner to request more specifics about the Foundation’s funding of projects dedicated to agroecology. In Steiner’s reply, he outlined the Foundation’s various goals for reducing poverty, namely “sustainable productivity growth.” He also supplied us with a specific list of the Foundation’s agroecology projects. Our research team looked more deeply into these projects, and concluded that they do not live up to our definition of agroecology.

Please read Phil Bereano’s letter to Steiner, which demonstrates why we feel that “NONE of the projects [Steiner cited] as agroecological are…deserving of that label.” And let us know what you think!  We would love to hear from you – you can email AGRA Watch at this address: [email protected]

AGRA Watch correspondence with the Gates Foundation

Please find below:

1. SEPT 19, 2012 Email correspondance from Phil Bereano to Roy Steiner, Gates Foundation
2. JUNE 22, 2012 Email correspondance from Roy Steiner to Phil Bereano
3. Roy Steiner Quotes from the May 14 KUOW radio interview

Sept 19, 2012 Email correspondence from Phil Bereano to Roy Steiner, Gates Foundation

Dear Roy—

Between vacations and family over the summer, I have not been able to get back to you very promptly.  I apologize for that and would like to continue our discussion further.

I read with great interest your discussion of “sustainability” since it is a concept I have helped develop over several decades in both my teaching and research work.  I am attaching of copy of the keynote address I gave at an international conference in Brazil as part of the run-up to the 1992 Rio EarthSummit. You will see that I am in complete accord with your remarks that the key aspects of true sustainability are not only technocratic (e.g., productivity, etc), but sociopolitical—empowerment and control. The definition does not have clear Aristotelian boundaries, but is an evaluation process to be made on a number of valued criteria.

The term “agroecological” is similar. Our discussion of “agroecological” approaches runs the danger of our apparently agreeing while each of us is defining the concept differently. I’d be interested in your understanding of it; I generally follow the guidelines that Miguel Altieri has laid down, that it “has a broad performance criteria which includes properties of ecological sustainability, food security, economic viability, resource conservation and social equity, as well as increased production. . . . To attain this understanding agriculture must be conceived of as an ecological system as well as a human dominated socio-economic system.” ( This goes far beyond the definition used, for example, by the OECD as “the study of the relation of agricultural crops and environment.”  In other words, in my view, in addition to embodying the idea of sustainability, agroecology includes principles of democracy.

So, when a research team from our AGRA Watch project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice investigated the six grants you referred me to, I particularly looked at their embodiment of empowering local individuals and communities, leading to increasing local control. Frankly, my conclusion is that most of them fail to merit the important appellation of “agroecological”.

*N2Africa—This proposal is an example of what we call a “technological fix”—an approach which has no inherent social aspects and is based on the narrow belief that changing a single technological factor will solve a complex social-technical problem.  Of course it would be good if smallholders could get more nitrogen into their soils, but this factor is hardly sufficient by itself to empower them! It is noteworthy that there is no indication at all that any of the 200,000 intended beneficiaries were involved in the design of the program or participate in its management.  Indeed, it appears likely that they will be further manipulated by foreigners during this process. In addition, the end goal of the project appears to be GE cereals; GE clearly violates most of the criteria for “sustainablility.” So I think this grant quite fails even your definition of agroecology.  I urge you not to continue to cite it in this regard.

*Conservation International—This is merely a program of monitoring what is happening on the ground. The Foundation’s press release describes it as “provid[ing] tools to ensure that agricultural development does not degrade natural systems and the services they provide, especially for smallholder farmers. It will also fill a critical unmet need for integrating measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near real-time and multi-scale data into an open-access online dashboard that policy makers will be able to freely use and customize to inform smart decision making. The raw data will be fully accessible and synthesized into six simple holistic indicators that communicate diagnostic information about complex agro-ecosystems, such as: availability of clean water, the resilience of crop production to climate variability or the resilience of ecosystem services and livelihoods to changes in the agricultural system.” This top-down technocratic program hardly qualifies as agroecological.  In fact—while it might be a beneficial activity—it could be used as a perfect illustration of trying to use a label to whitewash its opposite.  Your description claims that it will be “for decision-makers,” but these appear to be hierarchical elites, not smallholders who are not likely to have “an open-access online dashboard” in their fields.

* Diversity Trust—This is support for Svalbard, which is not surprising given the Foundation’s increasing involvement in CGIAR. Of course I support preservation of biodiversity, as my several decades of activity within the framework of the CBD testifies; and at my retirement I talked about the heroic and inspiring model of Vavilov and his assistants preserving his seedbank during the 28-month siege of Leningrad. I do not need to tell you that Svalbard is highly controversial (and that Cary Fowler’s reputation among environmentalists has become highly problematic); the controversy is all about this concept of “control” we are focusing on. The actual dynamic of Svalbard is that a huge range of indigenous and adaptable seeds is being collected and preserved and that the multinational biotech and seed companies (i.e., Monsanto) have access to them.  How convenient to provide these corporations and universities research material that they might not otherwise be able to obtain.  And how likely that any of the products they work on will be patented and costly and otherwise not readily available to small farmers. Any idea that an African peasant will have the education and financial resources to make use of the seed bank is absurd.   This project is certainly not agroeciological.

*CARE—This is a microfinance project which has only indirect relationship to agroecology in Africa.  Its goal is to “improve food security and long-term resiliency by implementing and scaling a model which will improve their access to land, water, markets, agricultural training and services, “ in order to ready smallholder women “for additional sustainable agricultural activities, practices and markets.” However, since these women “seldom own the land they cultivate and have little or no control or influence over income and farming decisions in their communities,” it is not clear how small amounts of cash from “women’s Village Savings and Loans’ groups as a means to increase women farmers’ productivity . . . in more equitable agriculture systems” will actually  empower them.  Skepticism certainly seems warranted when you claim that a Board so heavily weighted with proponents/beneficiaries of unsustainable globalization (e.g., Cargill, Coca-Cola, McKinsey, etc) will somehow promote sustainability practices.

*AGRA Soil Health—The mission of AGRA is “to trigger a uniquely African Green Revolution that transforms agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, competitive and sustainable system that assures food security and lifts millions out of poverty.”  You are, of course, aware of the many criticisms we have made of AGRA over the past few years—not the least that its organization and operations are so top-down that it is hard to see it as a champion of agricultural democracy.  “Restoring African soil nutrients through the use of improved soil fertility management practices, training and fertilizer” certainly is a critical part of “build[ing] a sustainable foundation for agricultural growth.”  However, “growth” is not an adequate descriptor of the problem, and “fertilizer” will probably equate with importing more chemicals from Yara rather than improving the use of green manures. In other words, despite these lofty but somewhat vacuous phrases, there is little real information showing that this grant is agroecological.
*GALVMed—As the Foundation well knows from its intimate association with PATH, vaccination programs may or may not meet the criteria of sustainability. Almost $64 million has been given to “scale-up access to livestock vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for resource-poor people,” but it quite unclear what this means.  “Partnering with organizations in developing countries” does NOT “ensure sustainable research, production and delivery of new products to poor livestock keepers.” Pfizer and the UK’s DFID have little by way of track records in promoting sustainable practices.  Agroecology is about actual processes operational in the real world, not stated conclusions.  It is impossible to tell from publicly available information whether this project meets the appropriate criteria; hence, a skeptical posture on our part certainly seems warranted.

In conclusion, Roy, it appears that NONE of the projects you cite as agroecological are ipso facto deserving of that label. We know of many activities in Africa that local groups are engaged in which are, in fact, agroecological.  If the Foundation is truly interested in such approaches (and we see nothing so far to justify such a conclusion on our part) we would be happy to put you in touch with them.  An infusion of merely a few thousand dollars, given with sensitivity and respect for on-the-ground knowledge and leadership, would, indeed, merit the Foundation making such claims.  Until that happens, we must publicly call you on what we think is more propaganda than substance on your part.


Phil Bereano
For the AGRA Watch project of CAGJ

June 22, 2012 Email correspondence from Roy Steiner to Phil Bereano

Dear Phil
Thank you for your email and continued interest in the foundation’s agriculture strategy.  As I mentioned in the radio interview our strategy continues to get refined in order to more effectively address poverty reduction through sustainable productivity growth in the agricultural sector. I think it is important to note that we think of productivity comprehensively: the ratio of a farm’s outputs to the inputs used. Productivity growth occurs when more (or higher value) outputs can be produced using the same level of inputs, or when output growth rates exceed input growth rates. Because we define our goal as sustainable productivity growth, we also account for environmental costs (e.g. soil degradation), environmental benefits (e.g. release of marginal lands to non-agricultural uses), social costs (e.g. increased labor burden for women) and social benefits (e.g. improved child nutrition). Our sustainability goal requires us to consider tradeoffs over time, so that today’s productivity gains do not undermine tomorrow’s productivity growth potential or fail to provide fundamental social benefits. Sustainable productivity growth cannot take place from increased input use alone. It requires improved technologies, knowledge about how to combine scarce resources and inputs efficiently to optimize production, and innovations along the entire agricultural value chain to lower costs, increase the value of commodities and improve incentives for all actors.
There are many working definitions of sustainable agriculture, sustainable agroecological intensification, etc. at work in the public consensus. Our definition is derived from the evidence generated from and aligns with many other international bodies, including but not limited to the reports of the Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences and IFAD’s Rural Poverty Report. Many of these definitions do not include a specific dimension related to farmer empowerment or knowledge, with the notable exception of the IAASTD report. We think this is critical and have included it as many of our investments have an explicit empowerment objective.
We are focused on helping farm families in SSA and SA increase their productivity sustainably. This means that our investments enable poor farmers to produce more food using scarce resources more effectively and efficiently, while protecting and enhance the natural resource base that agriculture relies on. And we ensure that farmers can both access and utilize solutions; that they are empowered and have the knowledge to choose solutions that maximize economic and social benefits and reduce the long term risks to their livelihoods. Sustainable agricultural practices at the farm level underpin the achievement of sustainable productivity growth.
Some of the grants that directly address this issue include (most of them have dedicated websites where you can get detailed information) :
N2 Africa: Putting Nitrogen Fixation to work for Smallholder Farmers in Africa
*    5 yrs, $19m
*    Wageningen University
This project aims to increase legume productivity, nutrition and soil health for small farmers in sub-Saharan by expanding the use of selected legumes with proven impact on biological nitrogen fixation.
Africa Monitoring System
*    3 yrs, $10m
*    Conservation International
This project develops a tracking and diagnostic system for decision-makers that will help monitor agricultural productivity, ecosystem health, and human well-being measures in African landscapes with real-time data, and understand the opportunities and trade-offs of increased agricultural production.
Global Crop Diversity Trust
*    7 yrs, $30m
*    United Nations Foundation
This project works to secure the genetic diversity of crops important to farmers in developing countries by ensuring samples at seed banks are viable, upgrading national gene back storage facilities and sharing information about genetic diversity so breeders have access to important traits.
Pathways: Empowering Women in Agriculture
*    5 yrs, $15m
*    CARE
This project support a model that uses women’s Village Savings and Loans’ groups as a means to increase women farmers’ productivity and empowerment in more equitable agriculture systems in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Soil Health Program
*    6 yrs, $165m
*    AGRA
This program will build a sustainable foundation for agricultural growth by restoring African soil nutrients through the use of improved soil fertility management practices, training and fertilizer.
Protecting Livestock, Saving Human Life
*    GALVMed
*    5 yrs, $22m
This project seeks to reduce risk and improve the incomes and nutrition of poor livestock keeps by developing vaccines that address major livestock diseases.

As always the full list of our grants can be found on our website.
Kind regards

Roy Steiner quotes from the May 14 KUOW radio interview
-On the goal of agroecology: “Fundamentally it’s about improving the productivity so people can make their own choices. You know, everybody should have the right to choose the profession they want, and in many of these countries, people are locked into certain ways.”
-“I think smallholder farmers can be very viable and very productive. If you look at China and India, the vast majority of the food there is produced by smallholder farmers, though there are many different kinds of agricultural systems. It’s not just the way we do it in the United States, and I think each country has to evolve the agricultural system that makes sense for them.”

-On the Gates Foundation’s role: “There’s increasing interest in this because it’s so important. The Foundation really has a very clear focus on smallholders. Those are farmers with usually less than a few acres of land. Because they’re the poorest, they’re the ones with the greatest need. And we focus on what are the services, and information and technology that they need in order to be more productive.”

-On GMOs: “We support a lot of different technologies, and most of the technologies we support are very conventional. About 6% of our portfolio, relatively small, is on biotechnologies that are the next generation. And we only use those where the problem is so difficult that conventional means won’t do it.”

-“Everyone wants food that’s safe, and we certainly want to contribute to an agricultural system in these countries that are fully safe, and that people choose themselves. And so we’re investing a lot in biosafety, capacity. At the end of the day, people should have a choice. We don’t believe in imposing particular foods, or particular technologies. We invest in a broad range. We have organic agriculture investments, we have the biotechnology investments, but to a large extent, it’s mostly bread and butter investments where we’re helping smallholder farmers just access the best technology that’s there, and teaching them how to use it in a way that really can benefit them over the long run.”

-On Biggest Success: “One is building out these indigenous seed companies in Africa where they are developing seeds that have really been neglected, like legumes…I went for years ago to this one little shop in Kenya, nothing on the shelves. I went back last year and all of these seeds are available and a stream of smallholder farmers are coming in. You can just tell, it’s making a huge difference. We’re hearing the ability of smallholder farmers to double their yield, triple their yield, because they now have this access, and it makes a big difference.”

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