How does the idea of trying to genetically manipulate cereals so they can pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere and use it as a fertilizer appeal to you? Opinions are likely to be mixed, at best. Those of us with reservations about the long-term environmental and human health implications of genetically manipulating crops will either be deeply concerned or, at least, nonplussed by the idea.  Others will welcome the decision by the Gates Foundation to put £6.3 million ($9.8 million) into the UK’s John Innes Centre. The Gates investment will be used to test the feasibility of engineering crops to use bacteria, which have evolved over millennia in leguminous crops like peas and beans, to create their own fertilizer from the nitrogen in the air around them.

Both 'pro' and 'anti' camps would probably agree that — if commercially successful — the owners of any patents based on such a technology would reap some hefty financial rewards. This begs a number of questions: is a technology like this really in the interest of the people of sub-Saharan Africa? Have farming communities in such places been properly consulted during the development of the project? And does the nearly $10 million being injected into the feasibility project represent useful research in the area of poverty alleviation in Africa?

Who are we to dictate?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, once again, assumed that the very group of corporatised Westerners who are ultimately responsible for the increasing levels of poverty, hunger and — in places — destitution of the people of sub-Saharan Africa, can somehow provide the solution. The Foundation also appears to uphold a widely contested view that the solution should, at its core, come in the form of genetic modification (GM) technology, developed and owned in countries outside those where it is primarily intended to be deployed. At the same time, the Foundation seems unconcerned that many African governments, farmers and citizens have consistently objected to GM crops as a poverty alleviation tool. 

After 5 years of research between 2003 and 2008, a United Nations project involving 400 scientists from 60 countries firmly concluded that GM technology had no place in the alleviation of poverty. Among the most serious GM-related problems cited in the report was the issue of seed ownership. GM technology, which generally produces infertile crops that have to be purchased from the producer, prevents farmers from generating their own seeds. With GM, the seed is effectively owned by the patent holder. The notion is repugnant to many, as clearly depicted in films like The World According to Monsanto and Food Inc.

There are many authorities on the subject who have long argued that GM is massively oversold as a solution. However, their voices are frequently ignored. Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), famously indicated in a Science Museum debate in 2009, as reported in the Farmers Guardian on 30th January 2009 (p. 14), that: “We don't need GM to solve the hunger problem of today...David King was absolutely wrong. Farmers in Africa can't afford the better seeds, they have no access to fertilisers and sprays and they have severe constraints over irrigation you don't need GM to solve that." Watson went on to say that GM won't solve the problem of food waste, and while there may be a role for some types of GM in the future, it had generally been "an oversold technology".  

How could nearly $10 million have been used more productively?

On the face of it, Western aid appears obsessed with throwing vast sums of money at new research, which aims to deploy Western technologies to assist people less fortunate than ourselves or to 'solve' their problems. It is usually not hard to see how such donations generate returns for the ‘donor’ country or corporation, or some entity linked to it. Or even to see the ‘aid’ as a continued form of exploitation or control which is ultimately to the detriment of recipient. The Gates Foundation’s aggressive vaccination programme in Africa, India and other developing countries, cooked up with the vaccine industry, the World health Organization and others, has come under fire for this very reason.

Bill and Melinda Gates

We tend to forget that access to low-cost energy, access to markets through the creation of decent roads and other transport channels, political stability and self-sufficiency are among the key factors most needed to ensure food security for all. 

But, assuming some of these major issues are resolved, what kind of research ideas might the Gates Foundation have done better to spend its money on? As you’ll see in Bill Gates’ 2012 Annual Letter, Mr Gates is unlikely to part with his dollars unless a proposal is regarded as innovative. Sadly, that immediately rules out the vast majority of options that could be usefully deployed — without delay.

So while we don’t necessarily agree that innovation is always needed, for any out-of-the-box agricultural scientists among you, here’s a short shopping list of some possible, innovative research ideas you might want to work on for the next round of funding by the Gates Foundation:

  • Evaluation of historic sources of non-mammalian protein (principally insect and other arthropod) among sub-Saharan African peoples
  • Farmer participatory research on methods of farming insects as protein sources
  • Farmer participatory research into increasing re-adoption of indigenous crops
  • Natural, low-technology methods for enhancing both soil quality and fertility, and conserving water
  • Development of ‘vertical farms’ (using living soils) to allow efficient use of vertical, as well as horizontal, space   

Call to Action

  • If you object to the emphasis that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is putting on the use of genetic modification (GM) of crops in their philanthropic efforts to help alleviate poverty in the so-called developing world, email the Foundation’s nearest office and voice your concerns
  • Some of our key concerns are given on our Say NO to GM campaign page. Also, more specific concerns about the widely circulated misinformation that attempts to promote GM as the silver bullet for world hunger have been set out clearly in a section entitled GMO Truths & Myths on the EarthOpenSource website. You might find it useful to refer to this site when compiling an email to the Gates Foundation
  • Please also share this story widely via email and social media!


ANH Say No to GM campaign page