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Sowing Seeds of Revolt

Why many Africans are rejecting Bill Gates's Green Revolution 2.0

April 2, 2007, Macleans magazine, Alex Gillis

Last September, Bill Gates launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, beginning with a US$150-million fund that will develop 400 varieties of high-yielding seeds in sub-Saharan Africa. The goal is to end hunger for 30 to 40 million people. "It's a start -- it's going to be multi-billion-dollars over time," says Roy Steiner, senior program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The program is inspired by the first green revolution started around 60 years ago, which spread high-yielding seeds, pesticides and fertilizers to increase crop yields in Asia and Latin America. "We need a revolution, but it's going to be a series of mini-revolutions," Steiner says.

The first wave of Green Revolution 2.0 is called Program for Africa's Seed System (PASS). Gates has committed US$100 million in grants, and the Rockefeller Foundation another US$50 million for the first five years of the program. But hundreds of African farming organizations want to pass on PASS: they want control of their own seeds and livelihood, says Mamadou Goïta, a development socio-economist in Mali, where he's executive director of a research institute. He and other farming representatives will be in Ottawa on March 26 to ask Canadian policy-makers to help stop the initiative. Goïta says the first green revolution, call it GR 1.0, largely took seed control away from small-scale farmers, especially women. This is a life-and-death issue in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of people live in rural areas and where most farming is done by women on small parcels of land. As well, he adds, "We are suffering from overuse of pesticides in our country." New seeds usually rely on heavy doses of chemical inputs, all of which are expensive.

Those opposed to GR 2.0, however, are up against a behemoth. Gates's charitable foundation is the world's second largest (after IKEA's), with an endowment of US$33 billion; its 2005 grant budget was US$1.6 billion. The World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global network of 15 agricultural research centres that helped run GR 1.0, are among Gates's supporters. Also helping are development guru Jeffrey Sachs and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who, rumour has it, Gates will probably choose to head GR 2.0. Monsanto, one of the world's largest seed firms, is also connected. And one of its former vice-presidents, Rob Horsch, has jumped to the Gates Foundation.

Still, Goïta joined 500 representatives from 80 countries during a food sovereignty conference in February to declare why they were against GR 2.0. And the month before, 70 organizations from 12 African countries issued a statement to the Gates Foundation: "We will resist these misguided, top-down but heavily funded initiatives from the North, which show little or no understanding or respect for our complex systems."

Goïta and others take offence at Gates's analysis of African small-holder farmers and the statement on the Gates Foundation website: "Science has passed them by completely." He gives an example of small-scale farmer solutions, describing a rice seed that's now four times more productive after farmers teamed up with a research institute in Mali. Goïta's supporters, such as USC Canada, also point to a program that began in Ethiopia in 1989, when small-scale farmers were in control of seed production and regenerated durum wheat that had been on the verge of extinction in that country. USC helped to expand the award-winning program, Seeds of Survival, in seven other countries, where projects worked from the bottom up.

In Canada, there is broad agreement that African farmers should be made a priority, and that the Canadian International Development Agency is failing in that area, as a brutally frank Senate report released last month made clear. And many organizations are supporting the Africans, including ETC Group, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, the National Farmers Union, and the Canadian Food Security Policy Group. But Gates has many supporters in Parliament. Ontario Liberal MP Belinda Stronach has been urging the Conservative government to back a new "African green revolution." She's impressed with the Gates program. "It's a tremendous signal," Stronach says. "When Gates came to Canada, he was able to leverage money for an AIDS vaccine." Now she thinks he might leverage an entire revolution.

Even the Gates Foundation's Steiner, though, acknowledges that revolutions can have negative sides. "The green revolution helped, in some places, to make the rich richer, and, in some places, it damaged the environment," he says. "If we don't learn from that, then we're stupid."

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