An Interview with Roy Steiner, Senior Program Manager, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
On the 12th of September, 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation joined the Rockefeller Foundation in announcing the formation of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA, with an initial investment of $150 million.
According to two of the world’s richest charities, the newly formed AGRA was built ‘on the work of the Rockefeller Foundation between the 1940s and 1960s’ and would ‘launch what is known as the ‘Green Revolution’, an effort that pioneered the historic transformation of farming methods in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, helping to double food production and stave off widespread famine. Among the pioneers in this effort was plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, a Rockefeller Foundation scientist for 39 years, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work developing improved crop varieties and farm management practices and promoting their widespread use around the world.’
Detractors from the sanitised vision of the Green Revolution’s legacy believe it ultimately ‘led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners. The ‘miracle’ seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases,’ according to Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in India
[See sidebar What Happened When the Green Revolution Hit India].
Since 1997, following the Green Revolution’s shift from farmed-saved seed to corporate monopolies of the seed supply, farmers lost control of their indigenous seed crops and found themselves in debt to the seed companies. The seed companies maintained control by making their seeds dependent on their company’s fertilisers and pesticides. As debts increased and became unpayable, Indian farmers were, ‘compelled to sell kidneys or even commit suicide. More than 25,000 peasants in India have taken their lives… ‘Seed saving gives farmers life. Seed monopolies rob farmers of life,’ states Shiva in an essay, The Suicide Economy of Corporate Globalisation.
According to Peter Rosse, PhD, the executive director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy, in the final analysis, the lessons of the Green Revolution, ‘taught us that increased food production can — and often does — go hand in hand with greater hunger. If the very basis of staying competitive in farming is buying expensive inputs, then wealthier farmers will inexorably win out over the poor, who are unlikely to find adequate employment to compensate for the loss of farming livelihoods. Hunger is not caused by a shortage of food, and cannot be eliminated by producing more.’
AGRA’s initial investment of $150 million — $100 million from the Gates Foundation and $50 million from the Rockefeller Foundation — will support AGRA’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS). Specifically, PASS’ comprehensive program would:
• Develop improved varieties of African crops
• Train a new generation of African scientists
• Insure improved seeds reached smallholder farms
• Develop a network of 10,000 Africa Agro-dealers
• Monitor, evaluate and manage PASS
Official press materials state a goal of the new program would be ‘to develop a network of 10,000 Agro-dealers who can serve as conduits of seeds, fertilisers, chemicals and knowledge to smallholder farmers, and in doing so help increase their productivity and incomes’.
In an interview with Kindred, Roy Steiner, a senior agricultural program manager for the Gates Foundation, stated the press materials were incorrect and denied the program would use chemicals or fertilisers. Nor would PASS develop or use genetically-engineered seeds. ‘Not that there is anything wrong with genetically-engineered seeds. Americans eat GE foods every day,’ said Steiner.
Steiner: Let’s not ignore the lessons of the past. That would be stupid. Let’s utilise those lessons so that we don’t have all of these unintended consequences. We do believe in using fertiliser, but would use micro-dosing — and combine it with good organic matter strategies. We want to approach this in an integrated matter. We learned the lessons of the old Green Revolution. This is the new Green Revolution. This is about empowering the African people.
Kindred: In September 2005, at an invitation-only International Food Policy Research Institutes conference in Washington DC, a paper presented by Peter Hazell and Xinshen Diao stated that supporting a green revolution in Africa was necessary because, ‘only then can the transition to industrialisation succeed’. Is a goal of AGRA to support the eventual industrialisation of the dozen African countries that have yet to be chosen?
Steiner: The goal is to move people out of hunger and poverty and some people will move out with agriculture and some with industry. It will be up to the government to do this. There is no good reason why 800 million people are hungry every day of their life. This is not a program to industrialise any place. Although that will probably occur in many places because the quality of life will go up. They will never get to an economic place of sustainability without the agriculture piece.
Kindred: How would AGRA deal with global warming that is partly to blame for Sub-Saharan Africa’s decreasing ability to grow food?
Steiner:‘The climate is changing and that is a contributing factor. The conditions that it creates, more drought and variability, we can breed seeds for that and help people adjust, but this program is not the ultimate solution for that issue.
Kindred: The mission of AGRA states that its goal is to be environmentally and economically sustainable. How?
Steiner: By taking a very good agriculture that starts at the local level with farmers who understand the soil and work with their crop. We want to empower local African scientists to develop solutions for their people. Ultimately, it is up to Africa to find solutions for themselves. It won’t be outsiders.
Kindred: How will the seed breeders pull seeds from international seed banks where seeds are being bought and patented by multinational seed companies — formerly chemical companies?
Steiner: We are providing funding for African researchers to develop their own varieties. They can use germ plasm from public gene banks. There are no property issues because no one has patented any seed in Africa. Monsanto would have to go through each African country in order to patent the seed.
Kindred: How will the Green Revolution in Africa work differently than in India where thousands of farmers have killed themselves?
Steiner: One of our programs is to create insurance programs for these farmers. One organisation has three million small customers that do micro-insurance and micro-credit. A vast majority of small holders need this if we are going to help them deal with the risk they are going to take. We need to start dealing with those issues and to create systems that deal with the poor with the vulnerable who are living life on the edge.
Kindred: Will the AGRA program use an organic and sustainable small farm model?
Steiner: Those are the models we would like to see. The soil is a mystery. There is more life below the soil than above. So, we are starting with the seed and will move to soil improvements and vegetable production later.
Kindred: Have you looked at sustainable models like those of Ecology Action, who are already in Kenya and who have submitted a proposal to the Gates Foundation?
Steiner: No. We just got started in May. Right now there is a staff of one and we are expanding to a staff of five. We are lucky to have a generous benefactor. But $150 million compared to the $36 billion spent on agriculture research a year is small. We are committed to the long term.
As this interview went to press, (11/06), the Gates Foundation welcomed Monsanto vice president Robert Horsch as a senior program officer. Horsch, a scientist who led genetic engineering of plants at the seed giant, will apply the technology towards improving crop yields in regions including Sub-Saharan Africa, stated the release. Horsch’s role would not interact with the PASS program, which focuses on conventional breeding programs.
‘However the Gates Foundation funds many research programs and we are currently funding GMO research to develop biofortified staple crops — those with higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, etc to address the massive problems with micronutrient deficiencies in the developing world and Africa will hopefully be a beneficiary of this research. We will also be funding many other research projects in the future, some of which may involve genetic engineering. However, these will be separate from the PASS program,’ said Steiner in response to the Horsch hire. ‘Our funding decisions are determined by what we hope will have the most impact on hunger and poverty.’
Lisa Reagan is the US Contributing Editor to Kindred.
What happened when the Green Revolution hit India
India’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of 6.8 per cent since 1994, reducing poverty by 10 per cent. However, 40 per cent of the world’s poor live in India, and 28 per cent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. More than one-third live on less than a dollar a day, and 80 per cent live on less than two dollars a day.
India’s recent economic growth has been attributed to the service industry, but 60 per cent of the workforce remains in agriculture.
The Indian Government was forced to reform its agricultural policy in the late 1960s when an imbalance in food imports was exacerbated by two years of drought in 1965 and 1966. The World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development chipped in assistance to develop high-yield rice and wheat ‘miracle seeds’. These seeds, combined with the Indian Government’s assistance with modern farm machinery, price incentives and a more efficient food distribution system, resulted in what came to be known as the Green Revolution.
The new seeds and fertilisers worked for many: India’s food production rose from 72 million tons in 1965–66 to 152 million tons in 1983–84, eliminating the country’s dependence on food grain imports. In addition to their planting the new seeds, farmers’ use of chemical fertilisers jumped from 1.1 million tons to more than 12.5 million tons in the first decade of the Green Revolution, and irrigated land grew from 74 million acres in 1965–66 to 111 million acres in 1988–89.
In the late 1980s, however, the Green Revolution began to fall apart as the chemical fertilisers rendered soil infertile. Farmers who had once diversified risk by growing as many as 30 different crops in their fields were dependent upon just one. As the quality of the soil deteriorated, they faced zero yields and an inability to pay their debts. Three years of drought beginning in 2001 further fuelled the crisis.
Twenty-five thousand farmers have committed suicide under these circumstances since 1997. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, 4,500 farmers have committed suicide in the past seven years. This does not include the number of family members of farmers who have also killed themselves.
From Harvesting Death, by Sarita Tukaram; CIA Factbook; Lonely Planet Guide: India; PBS; BBC.
Published in Kindred, Issue 20, Dec 06