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August 6, 2009 at 4:08 PM

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U.S. has wrong approach to African food security, groups say

Posted by Kristi Heim

Africa is getting more attention with a new U.S. administration that says it's committed to helping African countries achieve self sufficiency and food security. The Gates Foundation has also brought a renewed focus on African agriculture through its own programs and grantees, including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

What is the best way to move forward from decades of neglect and a recent food crisis that pushed 100 million more people into poverty?

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours Africa this week, a coalition of grassroots groups says "business as usual" won't work, and criticized the U.S. for pursuing a narrow approach that puts too much emphasis on biotechnology.


US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Masaai traditional dancers in Kenya after addressing the 8th Forum of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

The US Working Group on the Food Crisis used a visit by Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to raise the question of whether U.S. tax dollars for food-related aid to Africa are being spent wisely.

The United States and other top industrialized nations pledged $20 billion to promote sustainable agricultural development in the world's poorest regions last month at the G8 Summit in Italy.

The USAID's policies toward agriculture in Kenya, stated here, include a public-private partnership with KARI and Monsanto to develop genetically engineered sweet potatoes resistant to virus, and promote public awareness about the technology in Kenya.

(The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center said it was never involved in the original project. I had listed the Danforth Center among the partners, based on information from the USAID Kenya Web site. Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth center, said the center brought material from Monsanto and KARI to its labs and is working on the project using a different technology, in partnership with the government of Uganda).

After 14 years and $6 million, the project proved to be a failure, the coalition said, adding that local varieties outperformed genetically modified varieties in field trials.

The coalition called such policies "misguided" and at odds with a report on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The report, which came out earlier this year, took four years and was commissioned by the World Bank and United Nations to evaluate the impacts of agricultural methods on hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, health and sustainable development.

The report was approved by more than 50 governments, but not the United States, Canada or Australia.

The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social clashes and environmental disaster, said the co-chair of the report, Hans Herren, who is president of the Millennium Institute.

"I fear within the new (U.S.) administration not enough time has been devoted to reading and digesting the report so it can be used for its full potential to address problems at the root," he said.

Herren, who received the World Food Prize in 1995 for developing a pest control program that rescued the African the cassava, said building more resilience in plants through classical breeding is a better answer than engineering for drought resistance. Climate change may produce drought but also may produce severe storms and unpredictable weather patterns. He said the Kenyan agricultural institute is on the right track in broadening its approach more recently.

The report's findings reject current industrial farming methods as a solution to sustainable food production, concluding that the benefits of modern agriculture have not been equitably shared and have come at too high a price to the poor and to the environment.

Josphat Ngonyo, head of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, a network of 60 community groups, said that small holder farmers in Africa have been left out of the process of determining agricultural policy.

"We find that most of African governments ignore local farmers. They are not consulted," Ngonyo said. "We see heavy manipulation by multinational companies who have their ways to influence policies and legislation."

"What (farmers) clearly need is not biotechnology," he said. "They need water, markets for farm products. They need good roads to access markets, and they need incentives that would enhance getting their products to the markets."

The Kenya Biodiversity Coalition said the visit to KARI showcases "the Obama Administration's betrayal to Africa's small scale farmers and misplaced priorities on how to achieve sustainable food security in Africa."

"Chemical-intensive production methods continue to have adverse health and environmental effects," the group said, "while 'modern biotechnology' (genetically engineered seed) has contributed to hardly any verifiable positive impacts on equitable and sustainable development."

Asked to assess the work of Gates-funded AGRA, Herren praised its emphasis on soil quality and a program to train traditional plant breeders.

"What I think is a problem is they feel they know it all," he said. "To go out here and try to replicate the green revolution is not good enough."

He said where the effort falls short is in understanding "how the whole system operates." Key road blocks include lack of market access, infrastructure and training for farmers, he said.

"There are major gaps there in the AGRA program which are not addressed to have the impact they think they're going to have."

AGRA's main programs are seeds, soil health, market access, and policy and partnerships. The alliance has said it seeks to avoid the adverse effects of the original Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America, including overuse of fertilizer, and focus on small farmers living on less than a dollar a day--most of whom are women.

Last month AGRA, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, launched a program with KARI and other partners to improve maize yields by counteracting soil acidity.

The Gates Foundation's own assessment of the program last year can be found here.

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