Following the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome in July – a prequel to the upcoming Summit in New York, this September – faith communities from across Africa have been calling attention to the far-reaching consequences of current industrial agricultural models. On June 4th, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Institute (SAFCEI) sent an open letter, endorsed by over 500 faith leaders in Africa, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They emphasized that the current approach to food security, in the face of the intensifying climate crisis, will do more harm than good on the continent:
We, a collective of faith leaders from Africa, are experiencing first-hand how the Covid-19 pandemic is making visible failing food systems and fuelling hunger and poverty in Africa. Alongside our responsibility to be custodians of the Earth, faith networks are entrusted to ensure the just distribution and sharing of resources for all in need. While we are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the Gates Foundation) for its commitment to overcoming food insecurity, and acknowledging the humanitarian and infrastructural aid provided to the governments of our continent, we write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.
The Gates Foundation has not responded to the letter or to faith leaders’ concerns.
SAFCEI organized a press conference on August 3rd, to call attention to the Foundation’s unwillingness to engage. According to SAFCEI’s Climate Justice Coordinator, Gabriel Manyangadze:
We’ve seen from its initiatives in Africa that the Gates Foundation puts its full faith in technological fixes without seeking to address the vitally-important issues of morality and political economy involved. As such, the Foundation’s approach supports a dominance of multinational corporations over African-led food production systems. And in the Gates Foundation’s unwillingness to listen, we see a self-confidence bordering on arrogance, exactly the kind of ‘white saviour’ mentality of colonialism that Africa neither needs nor wants. … That is why hundreds of religious leaders from Africa with solidarity from organisations have called on the Gates Foundation to re-think its approach to farming in Africa.
During the press conference, faith leaders eloquently articulated the moral arguments against extractive industrial agricultural models. Such models increase disparities in wealth, land, and food access, and they promote practices that are not aligned with ethical environmental stewardship. States SAFCEI Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis, “SAFCEI feels that there is a real moral imperative to science and the two should not be kept separately.”
As corporations and foundations attempt to turn African agriculture into a profitable business, faith leaders and farmers have witnessed first-hand some of the most severe consequences. As Kenyan farmer Celestine Otieno explained in her presentation at the press conference, farmers are locked into a cycle of having to purchase seeds and inputs from corporations and not fully owning their crops until after the harvest. This decreases resilience, while increasing dependence on corporations. Says Otieno of this situation, “So my question is: is this food security, or food slavery?”
Instead of this destructive and unjust model, faith leaders, farmers, and civil society organizations are demanding investments in agroecological practices. As Million Belay and Bridget Mugambe (of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa) put it in a recent op-ed:
We welcome investment in agriculture on our continent, but we seek it in a form that is democratic and responsive to the people at the heart of agriculture, not as a top-down force that ends up concentrating power and profit into the hands of a small number of multinational companies. … We ask that Gates let the continent’s food producers and consumers chart our own paths toward sustainable and healthy farming practices and diets.
Speaking on the holistic importance of agroecology, South African farmer Busisiwe Mgangxela said at the press conference: “If you’ve got a baby, you have to feed that baby with nutritious food so that the baby can build resistance … And that’s how now the soil has to be built, and not feeding the plant with chemicals, but you feed the soil with organic matter … There’s everything in that soil, because the soil was made to feed the plants so that the plants can feed the people with the dense nutrients that are needed for people’s immune system.”
Agroecology promotes, according to SAFCEI board member Kirtanya Lutchmiyaran, the “sustainable and non-extractive use of water, land, and soil.” As people around the world face the worsening impacts of climate change, we have an obligation to reverse course and prioritize ethics and practices of care – for each other and the earth – over the pursuit of corporate profits.
Read and listen to additional media coverage of this important event:
Food Tank, USA: https://foodtank.com/news/2021/08/african-faith-leaders-call-on-the-bill-melinda-gates-foundation/
Religion News Service: https://religionnews.com/2021/08/05/african-faith-communities-to-gates-foundation-industrial-agriculture-is-no-solution-for-africa/
Further Africa (from Farmers Review Africa): https://furtherafrica.com/2021/08/04/african-faith-communities-plead-with-gates-foundation-to-stop-pushing-for-industrial-agriculture/
KPFA “A Rude Awakening” with Francesca de Gasparis: https://kpfa.org/player/?audio=361737