Tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches to solving the food crisis aren't unique to the United States. They're being felt across the global South. Last month protestors with the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition stopped a shipment of genetically modified maize grown in South Africa from being unloaded. The maize remains stuck in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
Understanding the difficulties in finding solutions to the global food crisis requires an awareness of the conflicts between transnational development and commercial approaches to food insecurity and those preferred by small-scale farmers. More than 50 years ago, the first Green Revolution was started when the Rockefeller Foundation began funding research for the industrial transformation of agriculture. Researchers introduced high-yielding varieties of wheat, rice and maize on prime, irrigated cropland in Mexico, India and the Philippines.
Farmers able to afford the inputs profited enormously. Four years ago the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with grants focused in four key areas: technological research and development; soil fertility (mostly through increasing the use of chemical fertilizers); increasing access to seed and inputs; and creating policy reforms.
One major departure from the model of the first Green Revolution is the heavy participation of private industry. Partners include Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Yara Fertilizer. Though AGRA claims it is not currently funding the development of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Gates Foundation is. AGRA's partners, such as the African Technology Foundation, are actively advocating for their legalization.
Jos Ngonyo, a representative from the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, the group that wouldn't accept GMO maize from South Africa visited Seattle in early May. His talk was titled, "Dysfunctional Aid and Misplaced Philanthropy: African Farmers Respond to the Green Revolution in Africa." Ngonyo, a recipient of the Eastern Africa Environmental Leadership Award, was invited to Seattle by AGRA Watch, a non-profit that supports African initiatives, food sovereignty and farmer self-determination. The Kenya Biodiversity Coalition is a consortium of 60 farmer groups, animal welfare networks, consumer networks, faith based organizations and community based groups working in the areas of sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, the environment and health. Here, he shares his views about how non-profits could learn from his country's base of agricultural knowledge.
What were the forces that brought Kenya's Biodiversity Coalition together?
A problem brought us together, a flawed piece of legislation. The Biosafety Bill was passed by [Kenya's] Parliament in 2008 without public participation. As enacted, the bill applies only to a narrow scope of GMO activities but not all biotechnology activities. The bill provides for "contained use activity" in very general terms and fails to protect and safeguard farmers, consumers and the environment. The threat of contamination is most troubling with the expansion of GMO crops and animals to produce powerful drugs and under-researched vaccines. The new GMOs may cross with other natural living organisms grown for food. The result is that dangerous chemicals enter the food supply chain. As enacted, the bill violates the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The Protocol has a mandatory requirement for public consultation and prior informed consent. We're seeking to amend the legislation.
Kenya recently rejected genetically modified maize shipped from South Africa. The maize remains stuck in the port city of Mombasa. Why?
The maize is a springboard to contaminate non-GMO crops. We blocked it because it's illegal to come to Kenya. Again it violates the Cartagena Protocol. There was no public consultation. We have no way to protect indigenous crops from GMO crops.
There's a tradition in Kenya: When indigenous maize, the locally grown corn eaten with every meal is harvested, farmers select the best seeds. Could you describe it?
That is true. Traditionally farmers would harvest and choose the best maize. They would actually put it above the fireplace so that the fire will continually heat the seeds. They would be the best seeds and they would plant those seeds and the crop would be a fine crop. And if for instance one had no seeds then they would borrow them from others and others would share them.
But now it's totally threatened because now we're having these seeds from Monsanto, the biotech seeds that actually are patented. You cannot replant. You cannot harvest and store before replanting; you just have to be totally dependent on Monsanto. And so you have farmers totally enslaved because they have to go back to the store every time, whether the crop yielded or not. They have to go back to the store because they can't reserve the seeds for replanting.
What about the indigenous seeds, the seeds they put on the fireplace?
The new GMO technology is threatening that local technology. With cross-pollination, GMOs contaminate the indigenous maize. It's a big threat to farmers' livelihood and is not the way forward.
But GMO technology appears to be the way forward for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA.
AGRA did not involve the people of Africa. It's a bad idea. This was an idea pushed to Africa and that does not work. It's not about us without us. People are so aware in the world that you cannot just bring an ideology from outside and push. They'll only take it for some time and then rebel against it. We have many examples of that. Stopping the shipment of GMO maize from South Africa is one. Right now, AGRA has a PR firm that you can't really access. It's a major concern to farmers. Africa can come up with better ways to spearhead food sustainability and ensure food sovereignty. I would submit strongly that AGRA just needs to be rethought. It's a wrong idea, wrong approach and you know the farmers are the right people to be asked about this. They don't support the idea of AGRA. It's something strange to them. They don't own the idea. So the best would have been that this idea be shelved, however painful it is.
Africa's Agriculture Technology Foundation received $43 million from the Gates Foundation to develop genetically engineered "water efficient maize." Isn't this maize useful to Kenya given water scarcity and drought?
We already have water-efficient maize. It does really well. It's called katumani. It's grown in dry areas and takes only three months to grow before people have food to eat. But now it's been gradually abandoned because Kenya's Agriculture Research Foundation, KARA [which receive monies from the Africa's Agriculture Technology Foundation] is focused on biotech seed breeding. That's where the money is. KARA used to focus on seeds that would do well in the environment. And now they don't. So we need to look at what works, which seeds are best for which season and encourage those. The Gates Foundation can put money there and that's where the money is needed.
OK. So you're not necessarily against aid, is that correct?
People in Africa welcome aid. The only concern we have with the Gates Foundation is we don't think they really know the truth on the ground. They may be meaning well. They want to reach out to support farmers. But they're misdirected. If they knew the truth and had meetings with the farmers on the ground they would probably put their money where it's needed most.
Where could Kenyan farmers use aid?
What they need is water for irrigation technology that supports indigenous crops. That would ensure food is always available. Farmers need credit facilities. They need to be able to market their food. In Kenya, for instance, such infrastructure would allow food to be able to get from where it is in abundance to where it's needed most, like the northern part of Kenya. Then we could solve the hunger crisis and farmers would also get a good return. As a result they'd have incentive to produce more. We also need storage facilities. Farmers know which crops work for each season. When it was the rainy season they had local seed varieties that did well. When it was dry they would plant sorghum, millet or cow peas and these would do really well and ensure that people had something to eat during the dry period. Aid should be about empowering farmers at the grassroots level.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is modeled, in part, on the first Green Revolution of the 1960s. Critics say it has the same commercial bias of former Green Revolutions and reinforces the World Bank's position against small-holder agriculture.
AGRA is not for small-scale farmers. Their agenda, as we see it, is for propagating plantation or large-scale farming, whereby biotech seeds are grown in these big areas. So that's a threat to small-scale farmers. Already that would put the small-scale farmers out of business. Already they are struggling. So they would not have their crop and then we would have a situation like we had in South Africa whereby the GMO crop failed in 2008-'09. The small-scale farmers there had huge losses and were not compensated. It was only the large-scale farmers that were.
Because in South Africa they only had genetically engineered crops?
Yes of course and these crops are not guaranteed. Sometimes they fail like what has happened in India. We have farmers committing suicide because these farmers really put their all in their farms. Because farms give them food, they sustain their lives, their family's lives. So they would sacrifice. They would even take bank loans to invest on their farms. And now when the crop fails and you have a situation like in the GMO scenario where the seeds are patented, it's like you have to buy more seeds and you don't have the money because you spent all the money. You had to invest in a crop that failed. That's the reason why farmers are frustrated and the reason why some of them have no value for their lives. I wonder: Does Monsanto really care about these small-scale farmers, because these are the people who are impacted. Monsanto is making money out of these poor people and do they care about their lives? Is it worth subjecting people to that kind of life?
There have been many impacts on the ability of small-scale farmers to grow food for the country. One you spoke of is colonization. Could you talk about that?
When the colonialists came to Kenya they tried to promote plantation farming or large-scale farming. They were actually not interested in feeding the local population; they were interested in exporting to the West. This created a problem because the good lands were taken to do this cash crop for export. So the small-scale farmers were forced into marginalized areas, less productive areas. So now those people have ended up dependent on food aid because there's no water to ensure they can produce in the marginalized areas. It's a big issue.
Do you make a connection with what happened under colonial rule and the goals of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa?
Yes, because AGRA is promoting large-scale plantation farming. Because this is what would give those who are behind it monies. This again will actually push small-scale farmers further into poverty and it will make the situation worse.