Originally published in Pambazuka.

In March 2009, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed its Global Food Security Act (SB 384). The legislation, known as the Lugar-Casey Act, aims to focus on longer-term agricultural development, and restructure aid agencies to better respond to crises. Funding for agricultural development – some US$7.7 billion worth – would be directed in large part to genetically modified crop research. In other words, food aid policy for the first time mandates the use of genetic modification technologies. Engineered crops will need engineered seeds – seeds that are no longer a result of natural cross-pollination.

The Lugar-Casey Act represents the biggest project in agriculture since the original Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. Fifty years ago, developing countries had yearly agricultural trade surpluses of over US$1 billion. Today the Southern food deficit has grown to over US$11 billion per year, helping create dependency on the volatile international markets that led to the 2008 food crisis.The first Green Revolution increased global food production by 11 per cent in a very short time, but per capita hunger also increased equally as much. How could this be? Green Revolution technologies are expensive. The fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, and machinery needed to cash in on productive gains put the technology out of reach of most small farmers, increasing the divide between rich and poor in the developing world. Poor farmers were driven out of business and into poverty-stricken urban slums. The new Green Revolution highlighted in the Lugar-Casey Bill suffers from all these same problems. This time, however, the genetically-engineered seeds will be under patent and privately owned by the biotechnology corporations that monopolise the seed industry, and farmers will have to buy new seed each year.[5]

R&D dollars in the millions go to engineered climate-smart seeds as a solution to food security under climate stress. DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and Limagrain control 29 per cent of the world market in seeds, with Monsanto controlling almost all of the genetically engineered seed. The Gates and Rockefeller foundations’ partnership with Monsanto to bring an Asian-type Green Revolution to the African continent will invest US$150 million into the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). On its website, the Alliance describes itself as a ‘dynamic partnership working across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger … focusing on key aspects of African agriculture: from seeds, soil health and water to markets, agricultural education and policy’.

The Gates/Monsanto bond is very strong. An August 2010 report in The Wall Street Journal reported that Monsanto was among the Foundation’s portfolio investments. Figure 2 illustrates the institutional links and affiliations with AGRA that both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Monsanto Corporation fund. It also shows the direct link between Rob Horsch, VP for International Development of Monsanto for 25 years, and current senior program officer for the Gates Foundation.

Increased support for biotechnology is hidden in these developments. A 2009 report, has as one of its main recommendations: ‘…international agricultural research projects with substantial payoffs for a large number of beneficiaries should be given investment priority, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that offer major potential for boosting agricultural yields and “climate proofing” crops’. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa puts the costs of developing 200 crop varieties better adapted to local environments at US$43 million. The development of bioengineered maize by Monsanto is said to have cost US$10-25 million. At some point, there will have to be a return on this investment – in Argentina Monsanto claimed this back retroactively. In 2008, the number of farmers using GM crops worldwide increased by 1.3 million from 1996 to 13.3 million – and the number of countries growing these crops increased from six in 1996 to 25 in 2008. More than 90 per cent of farmers using GM crops in developing countries are small and resource poor.

The testing ground for modified seeds is spreading across African fields. In South Africa in 2009, Monsanto’s genetically modified maize failed to produce kernels and hundreds of farmers were devastated. According to Mariam Mayet, environmental attorney and director of the Africa Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, some farmers suffered up to an 80 per cent crop failure. While Monsanto compensated the large-scale farmers to whom it directly sold the seed, it gave nothing to the numerous small-scale farmers who had been handed out free sachets of seeds. ‘When the economic power of Gates is coupled with the irresponsibility of Monsanto, the outlook for African smallholders is not very promising,’ said Mayet. Monsanto’s aggressive patenting practices have also monopolised control over seed in ways that deny farmers control over their own harvest, going so far as to sue-and bankrupt- farmers for ‘patent infringement.’

An additional feature of new crop technology, especially GM crops, is that they are patent protected. The Royal Society’s report Reaping the Benefits states: ‘The use of patents has mixed consequences. In some instances – this strategy has stimulated the commercial development of products and their application. However, intellectual property restrictions have major impacts on the access to new technologies, especially for the poor. The potential for patent protection has engendered mistrust of the technology because it may restrict the options of farmers and force those with no other options into restrictive and expensive commercial relationships’.

Josphat Ngonyo, with the Africa Network for Animal Welfare, compares the workings of the Alliance with that of Monsanto. In his view, ‘The way that the Gates and Rockefeller foundations have set up AGRA resembles a well known Monsanto format. AGRA purports to finance and train small and medium sized agro-chemical dealerships, up to the village level, to make sure ‘improved seeds’ have a smooth channel to flow to all farmers across the continent. But Monsanto must police its technology contracts, so its transfer from Monsanto’s labs to farmers is best controlled if the financier has a hand on the seed supply chain in Africa’. In short, this leads to corporate control of the seed supply from the lab to the village farm, whether or not it is genetically engineered.

On 8 July 2010, Soyatech LLC announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were launching their new Southern Africa Soy Value Chain Development Program at the Soy Innovation Africa 2010 conference in Cape Town. With a grant of US$8 million from the Gates Foundation, NGOs (CLUSA & AGRA), private companies (Cargill) and government (the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute) are planning to develop a soy value chain. The project will run for four years, commencing initially in Mozambique and Zambia where it is aimed at 37,000 small-scale farmers. The model will be replicated in other regions over time. According to the Soyatech website, the program is designed to provide entrepreneurs and industry leaders in emerging economies with the tools to produce process and utilise soybeans efficiently. The Soy Innovation Africa program will also offer broad understanding of the world soybean market, new technologies and strategic insights from international leaders in crop production, soyfoods, biofuels and animal feed.

Cargill is the biggest global player in the production and trade in soya, with heavy investments in Latin America. Drawing from the experience in Latin America, we can anticipate that African farmers will have no choice than to accept GM seeds under the Gates project. Mozambique has already opened the door to GM soya commodities, accepting a shipment of 35,000 MT of GM soya beans from South Africa in 2010.


‘In the course of history people have utilized 7000 kinds of plants for food, with emphasis on wheat, rye, maize and about a dozen highly domesticated species. Yet at least 75,000 exist that are edible and many of these are superior to the crop plants in use.’– Edward Wilson, Biophilia 1984

‘Of the approximately 200 indigenous species of plants that were used by Kenyans as vegetables in the past, most were either collected in the wild, semi-cultivated, or cultivated. Now many are either unknown or extinct’. – Mary Abukatsa-Onyango, Kenya 2009

In a globalised world in which agriculture is increasingly industrial, farming is based on monocultures of a limited number of plant species. The trend for agriculture to be increasingly mechanised in the hands of fewer and fewer farmers cultivating larger and larger expanses of land is leading to a simplification of our landscapes and a reduction of our plant varieties, whether directly related to food crops, or indirectly affecting agriculture by affecting climate, pollinators etc. For example in the United States and in Canada, for distances of some 1,800km one can fly over fields planted to only two or three crop species. This simplification, homogeneous genotypes across large expanses of land, constitutes a threat to food security. An illustration of one of the consequences of this is that ironically bees have it better and produce more honey in the middle of Paris than in the countryside as they have access to a greater variety of flowers and are not exposed to pesticides. African countries have lost a lot of their indigenous diversity as a result of the western agricultural methods and the growing of foreign species. This loss of diversity involved also the loss of reliable nutritious and abundant food.

‘Despite their seeming fragility, small African peasant producers have a lot of knowledge about the continent’s very rich agricultural biodiversity. When put together with appropriate agro-ecological techniques, approaches that draw on this knowledge produce highly satisfactory results. The use of organic fertilizer such as compost, for example, and anti-erosion techniques, have doubled and even quadrupled yields from local seeds. Integrated pest management without using pesticides has led to a 30% increase in production’.

‘In Mali, the Office du Niger rice producers won the prize for best yield, with more than eight tonnes per hectare, using only organic fertilizer and local seeds.[13] Knowledge on organic growing techniques has been provided in the project and more and more farmers make changes in their practices. Cover crops and compost is used to recover and increase the fertility of the soil and increase infiltration of water. Branches of trees are planted to root along fences and weeds are plowed into the soil to increase organic matter content. The case study points out that crop rotation and diversification of plants and animals makes it possible to get enough food for the whole year, improve family diets and generate income if there are surpluses. Squash, onion, sweet pepper, yucca/cassava, and cooking banana are all part of multi-cultivation in the parcels of land, and the farmers experiment with new crops. Some farmers have built small dams on their farms to hold back water for animals and irrigation, and there are also some examples of raising tilapia fish. Cisterns to store rainwater are used by some families. Resource use in animal feeding is made more efficient through intensive grazing with planning and by rotating the use of pastures. Animal feed is also produced on farms. Such measures as those mentioned here can contribute to improved food security, and less dependency on basic grains’.


‘I don’t believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops’. Twenty years ago, Professor Mary Abukutsa Onyango, a horticultural scientist at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, pioneered extensive research in traditional vegetables such as African eggplant, nightshades and cow peas. ‘The research was inspired by my experience of having had to live on vegetables since I was a child because I was allergic to animal proteins. I therefore know that traditional vegetables are rich with nutrients and are easy to grow,’ explains Abukutsa. ‘I wanted my research to improve the uptake of traditional vegetables and to help farmers earn a living from selling the crops.’ ‘To date, we have about 100 contact farmers and/or farmer groups-77 in Western Kenya and 33 in Central Kenya – who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods,’ she said. ‘The farmers that do well are also taught simple food preservation techniques like drying, which increase shelf-life but retain as much of the nutrients as possible, and are linked to supermarkets to sell their vegetables. Because of their extensive training, they are able to pass on their knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities.’

She further explains that due to concerted efforts from various stakeholders to popularise traditional vegetables, they are now available in restaurants, markets and even supermarkets and people do not have to travel to the rural areas to access them. Abukutsa advocates a return to indigenous crops to address the issues of nutrition security, poverty and health that are further compounded by climate change impacts. For example, with a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to fall due to changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought-tolerant.

‘Exotic vegetables have a market, but largely among the rich. They are expensive and therefore marginalise Kenyans who live below the poverty line, and who account for an estimated 60 percent of the rural population, according to government reports such the Kenya Health Demographic Survey of 2009,’ explains Nduati Kigo, an agricultural officer in Central Kenya. He adds that since the available exotic vegetables are out of the reach for the ordinary Kenyan, and with limited available options due to the lack of mainstreaming of the traditional vegetables, food insecurity remains a reality for many households.

The traditional (and valued) roles of women in plant genetic resource management (seed collection, selection and saving) will be silenced and devalued by the biotechnology advocacy of US development policy. The livelihood of seed saving and production by women could be dismantled in the name of a misguided development agenda that focuses on agribusiness incomes in the developed world. The risks to farmers of fully adopting industrial agriculture in general and GM seeds in particular include:

– Transferring their food and farming decisions to global corporations
– Losing ecological and agricultural diversity as genetically modified crop varieties spread
– Increased use of pesticide and fertilizer that often come hand in hand with engineered seeds
– Driving small- and medium-scale family farmers off their land because they cannot afford the expensive inputs, including genetically modified seeds, that industrial agriculture demands.

Wherever people’s needs are largely supplied by a local food system, the farms in that region are themselves more diverse. Farmers who supply local markets have strong incentives to diversify their production. Seed saving farmers have selected plants for certain traits including their success in local microclimates and soil types. Agricultural biodiversity steadily multiplies as a result. When farms are small in scale, and especially when farmed organically, they also enable a wide range of non-food species to co-exist within the farm system. In some cases the farm itself mimics the wilderness. There is a lot of ground to recover and species to reclaim.

Nidhi Tandon is founder and director of Networked Intelligence for Development.