La Via Campesina, a global peasant movement representing small farmers, landless workers, fisherfolk, rural women, youth and indigenous peoples, with 150 member organizations from 70 countries on five continents, has denounced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust’s recent acquisition of Monsanto Company shares. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was founded in 1994 by Microsoft founder William H. Gates, and today exerts a hegemonic influence on global agricultural development policy. The Foundation channels hundreds of millions of dollars into projects that encourage peasants and farmers to use Monsanto’s genetically-engineered (GE) seed and agrochemicals. In August the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, which manages the $33.5 billion asset trust endowment that funds the Foundation’s philanthropic projects (and to which Bill & Melinda are trustees) disclosed that it purchased 500,000 shares of Monsanto shares for just over $23 million.(1)
According to Dena Hoff, a diversified family farmer in Glendive, Montana and North American coordinator of La Via Campesina, “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust’s purchase of Monsanto shares indicates that the Gates Foundation’s interest in promoting the company’s seed is less about philanthropy than about profit-making. The Foundation is helping to open new markets for Monsanto, which is already the largest seed company in the world.”
Since 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has collaborated with the Rockefeller Foundation, an ardent promoter of GE crops for the world’s poor, to implement the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is opening up the continent to GE seed and chemicals sold by Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. The Foundation has given $456 million to AGRA, and in 2006 hired Robert Horsch, a Monsanto executive for 25 years, to work on the project. In Kenya about 70 percent of AGRA grantees work directly with Monsanto (2) , nearly 80 percent of Gates’ funding in the country involves biotech, and over $100 million in grants has been made to Kenyan organizations connected to Monsanto. In 2008, some 30 percent of the Foundation’s agricultural development funds went to promoting or developing GE seed varieties (3).
In April the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and finance ministers from the US, Canada, Spain and South Korea pledged $880 million to create the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), managed by the World Bank to “tackle world hunger and poverty.”(4) In June GAFSP announced that it gave $35 million to Haiti to increase smallholder farmers’ access to “agricultural inputs, technology, and supply chains.”(5) In May Monsanto announced that it donated 475 tons of seed to Haiti, which is being distributed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The administrator of USAID is Rajiv Shah, who worked at the Gates Foundation before being appointed by the Obama administration in 2009.
According to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Haitian Peasant Movement of Papaye and Caribbean coordinator of La Via Campesina, “It is really shocking for the peasant organizations and social movements in Haiti to learn about the decision of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to buy Monsanto shares while it is giving money for agricultural projects in Haiti that promote the company’s seed and agrochemicals. The peasant organizations in Haiti want to denounce this policy which is against the interests of 80 percent of the Haitian population, and is against peasant agriculture—the base of Haiti’s food production. ”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also funds the US government’s Feed the Future initiative, administered by the State Department. At a July 20 congressional subcommittee hearing on Feed the Future, executive vice president for Monsanto Gerald Steiner testified that “Feed the Future is exciting not least because it recognizes both the business imperatives by which Monsanto and other companies must operate… We want to do good in the world, while we also do well for our shareholders.” Steiner mentioned Monsanto’s project to develop drought resistant maize for Africa, also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.(6)
According to Hoff, “Foundations, however well meaning, should not be setting food and agricultural policies for any nation of peoples. Democracy demands the informed participation of civil society to determine what is in the best interest of each nation’s population. ‘Doing well for our shareholders’ seems an ulterior motive for meddling in the health and welfare of the planet and all its inhabitants in order to make a profit.”
Perhaps not by coincidence, in July Monsanto’s chief executive officer and president Hugh Grant purchased $2 million of company shares, and vice president and chief financial officer Carl M. Casale bought $1.6 million of shares. “Grant and Casale have pocketed nice sums from selling Monsanto shares over the years.”(7) Purchase of Monsanto shares by Gates, Grant and Casale could have been in anticipation of last week’s news that researchers published the genome for wheat, the staple grain for one-third of the world’s population. “For Monsanto, a quality wheat genome map could potentially help in our efforts to bring better wheat varieties to farmers,” said Monsanto. (8) In 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $26.8 million to Cornell University to research wheat, and in May awarded $1.6 million to researchers at Washington State University to develop drought-resistant GE wheat varieties.(9)
The Gates Foundation continues to push Monsanto’s products on the poor, despite mounting evidence of the ecological, economic and physical dangers of producing and consuming GE crops and agrochemicals. In June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monsanto Co. vs. Geertson Seed Farms, its first case about a GE crop. The Court recognized that genetic contamination of non-GE crops from transgene flow of DNA from GE crops, which occurs through the spread of pollen by wind and bees, is harmful and onerous to the environment and farmers. According to the web site of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “AGRA and its partners have released more than 100 new varieties of improved seed across the [African] continent.”(10)
La Via Campesina maintains that the best way to ensure healthy food, adapt to climate change, conserve soils, water and forests, and revitalize rural economies is with policies that promote food sovereignty and small-scale, agroecological farming systems—the foundation of which is native seed varieties. The United Nations estimates that 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers have abandoned native seed for genetically-uniform varieties offered by corporations such as Monsanto. Genetic homogeneity increases farmers’ vulnerability to sudden changes in climate and the appearance of new pests and diseases, while seed agrobiodiversity—with native seed adapted to different microclimates, altitudes and soils—is fundamental for adapting to climate change. Saving and replanting native seed increases agrobiodiversity and strengthens crops’ genetic plasticity (their capacity to adapt rapidly over generations to changing growing conditions).
According to Henry Saragih, general coordinator of La Via Campesina in Jakarta, “La Via Campesina condemns this missappropriation of humanitarian aid for commercial ends and the privatization of food policies”
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