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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

December 22, 2009 at 5:12 PM

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PCC expresses distaste for Gates approach to agriculture

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Gates Foundation is getting some criticism from a local food co-op for supporting research into genetically modified crops to increase production in Africa.

PCC Natural Markets, the Seattle-based food co-operative, published a letter and editor's note this month taking a strong stance against genetic engineering of food.

"I caution the organic community to be watchful of this NEW Green Revolution, especially since The Gates Foundation science and technology efforts are led by a former Monsanto researcher,"
Dennis L. Weaver wrote in PCC's Sound Consumer.

"The Gates Foundation apparently is pushing genetically modified crops on African farmers," PCC editor Trudy Bialic added. She cited a $42 million Gates grant to a project involving Monsanto to produce corn resistant to drought "even though genetic engineering has failed to increase crop yields significantly, despite 20 years of research."

PCC, which has nine stores in the Puget Sound region and 47,000 members, is the largest consumer-owned natural food co-operative in the United States. Its staff writes a monthly report about issues in food safety and nutrition aimed at consumers.

Mark Suzman, director of policy and advocacy in the Gates Foundation's global development program, responded in a letter to PCC that the foundation is investing in a broad array of approaches and paying attention to environmental and economic sustainability.

"Most of our grants to improve seed quality use conventional breeding," Suzman wrote. "We include biotechnology when we believe there is potential to help farmers confront drought and disease, or to increase the nutritional content of food, faster or more effectively than conventional breeding alone."

The criticism by advocates of organic agriculture isn't new but illustrates a politically charged split over food, one that Bill Gates acknowledged in a speech in October at the World Food Prize symposium.

Gates said some critics are "instantly hostile to any emphasis on productivity," and that such an "ideological wedge" could thwart major breakthroughs to help farmers deal with the effects of climate change.

"The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability -- and there is no reason we can't have both," he said.

But the local reaction reveals ongoing skepticism, even among an audience generally not at odds with Gates philanthropy.

"The organic community cannot buy into Bill's call to 'Let's just all hold hands, sing kumbaya, hug, air-kiss and "'get over" past "ideological" divides,' " Weaver wrote to PCC.

"I don't know exactly what is motivating the Gates Foundation to buy into the propaganda," Bialic said. "I think it's an ideology that technology can save the world."

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