SAFCEI pleads with Gates Foundation to halt destructive farming approach

The Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) sent an open letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation earlier this week because the industrial scale approach to farming and food production, which is championed and funded by Gates throughout Africa, is having seriously destructive and unintended consequences. “We write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis,” the letter reads. Francesca de Gasparis of SAFCEI joins the BizNews Power Hour to shed some light on the NGO’s concerns. “Our message is, can you just pause for a minute and have a conversation with us? Can you actually listen to us who are witnessing what’s happening on this continent and happening to farmers so that you can actually take stock of the system that’s working?” – Claire Badenhorst 

Francesca de Gasparis on what SAFCEI stands for: 

SAFCEI is the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute. We’re an environmental NGO, and we work specifically with faith communities in the region on environmental issues, which we frame as eco-justice, climate justice, anything to do with decision-making or processes that are happening that aren’t really delivering to the people who are most vulnerable in these circumstances.

On why SAFCEI has concerns about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Well, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do a lot of excellent work, so it’s really important to preface that. We are not in any way a part of any kind of conspiracies around vaccines or anything like that. We believe that the work that they do in the medical field is incredibly important in our region. Not to say that there isn’t always a critique for how overseas NGOs work in Africa. There’s a critique to be made there but that’s not the issue that we’ve got that we’re faced with now.

This year, we’ve got the World Food System Summit which the United Nations is hosting and for some time now, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been funding AGRA. AGRA is an initiative in Africa that is really about reforming our seed laws. It’s called the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. It sounds very fancy and exciting, but they’ve been trying to reform our farming laws, so they do quite a lot of policy work and they also try and incentivise in making farming more industrialised. Unfortunately, it’s a great idea which isn’t actually reaping benefits, in particular for small-scale farmers in Africa and in our region, most farmers are small-scale farmers. If we’re talking about farming as a justice issue, we need to be making sure that the people who are most vulnerable in these situations – those are the people with the least land, those are the people with the least other resources, they’re not able to just go to the city and get a job – that they are actually being supported in their farming practices. Unfortunately, the investment by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing exactly the opposite.

On issues with industrial scale farming:

I think that historically, we as a part of the industrial revolution, as a part of our mechanisation of how we do things in farming practices and so on, it worked for a while. But industrial farming basically depletes the soil. It puts farmed animals in cages, these very high intensive farming systems, which produce a vast amount of waste, and they’re not working within the wider ecosystem. So what you see is it’s a high input, lots of fossil fuels, very much impactful on climate change and a lot of outputs, a lot of waste products and not beneficial to a smaller beneficiary. So the high input, high output monoculture, chemical-intensive farming isn’t going to reap the benefits that we think it will.

So if you ask a small-scale farmer to go into cash cropping, what happens is the diversity of the food that they’re growing grows right down and they become very reliant on the market. If the market is bad that year for whatever reason – maybe it’s Covid, maybe it’s climate change, maybe there’s been a severe drought – they then have only one cash crop which they either can’t sell or is worthless. They’re now really in a difficult situation. If you work with indigenous farming systems, you have diversity on your farm. So you have a lot of different crops and you have a lot of nutritional value on that farm.

On why their approach is misguided: 

The very serious critique that the Gates Foundation has been getting is that it’s sort of a saviour complex or a white saviour complex. I don’t take that position. The reason I don’t take that position is because I think they’re trying to address the same issues as we are, which is hunger, which is poverty, but the model that they’re using – the ideological model – and we see this often in how decision-making gets done top-down, you come with an ideological approach but you’re not listening to what the people actually need or want. You can support farmers. I think it’s a brilliant initiative. I wish they put their billions into actually thinking about how to sustain these farmers in the current systems where they work so that we’re not entirely replacing their actual knowledge systems that they hold, the seeds that they hold, that we’re not taking that all away, but actually adding and enhancing what they’re doing already.

Small-scale farmers need support but this isn’t the kind of support that they need and evidence is showing that. Research has been looking at what AGRA has been doing and the evidence isn’t supporting that. I think that when you are a multibillionaire running a multibillion NGO, it becomes quite difficult to sit down and have dialogue. It’s become quite a polarised space. I think what we’ve been saying to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that we want to have dialogue with you. We want you to listen to what we are offering. We want to have a discussion with you. We want to challenge this idea that there isn’t enough food to feed the world because there is. The issue with food is around access. So there’s enough food but it gets wasted or it doesn’t get to the people who need to eat it. And the market, what it does is [it] undermines the small farmers who already have a product; they just don’t have anywhere to sell it.

On who is winning with industrial farming:

Well, a few elite big farmers benefit in the short term, but if you look at the US, the US has got great inequality issues. They haven’t solved their problem by any means. You have these vast maize farms, the corn farms and the soil is like a desert now. They have to put in a ton of chemicals, a lot of fossil fuels in order to farm that land because the soil no longer contains the health and well-being that can support the plants. That is a problem. That’s not a system that is working within an ecosystem. You know, that’s the thing about rich and healthy soil. It’s full of the community of life. It’s full of all kinds of things in our biome – the insects and the organisms – they all can live there because we’re not using pesticides or chemicals to enhance growth.

On solutions to the problem:

Well, our governments often are swayed very easily by major funding, major organisations like AGRA, so we see their policies changing. We don’t benefit. It’s not like we’re in a sort of business competition space. That’s not what this is about, and I think sometimes if your mindset comes from a business model, you think that development also needs to be done with a business model. That’s not what this is about. This is about benefiting the small farmers who are most vulnerable to climate change, the small farmers who are really getting hit by things like Covid. So how can we benefit them?

So our message is and the reason why five hundred faith leaders from across Africa signed the letter that we sent to them was, hey, can you just pause for a minute and have a conversation with us? Can you actually listen to us who are witnessing what’s happening on this continent and happening to farmers so that you can actually take stock of the system that’s working and let’s change that? You know, these things aren’t set in stone. So we’re hoping that with the opportunities like this to share this perspective, that people will start to think about it and engage with it more. And governments will want to have the conversation with those of us who are supporting the small farmers, who do want to see a system that actually really genuinely benefits them.

On receiving a response: 

No, no response, no response. But we have had a bit of press in the US, so we hope that they will start responding. They did at one point talk to press about the fact that there are critiques of the approach but it’s been quite a defensive language. I didn’t find it sort of an openness to dialogue or an openness to see the other side, and I think when you’re that big, like the Gates Foundation, you really do need to give the opportunity and let some other thinking in. I think Monsanto, which is a big genetically modified crop business, has had the ear of the Gates Foundation for a long time, and I’d like them to also start talking to some of the rest of us in society that make up the other aspects of society who aren’t benefiting from their approach.

On what ‘agroecological’ means as the solution for agriculture and food security:

I’ve just come from a two-day online Zoom conference on this very issue and it was really exciting. So I’ve been listening to some of the absolute experts in this area this morning so it’s a great question. First of all, I want to say Africa is not poor. We are an incredibly wealthy continent. We have everything we need here and more to thrive and flourish. That’s the first thing I really want to say. We are not in a bad place. We may be the most impacted by climate change according to science in terms of temperature rise and impacts, but we’ve got a lot of resource and there’s a lot we can do.

Agroecology is an approach to farming which is connected to ecological practices. So it’s working within the resilience of nature, within the resilience of the ecosystem, and when I talk about that, I’m talking about biodiversity. What biodiversity is is it’s encoded wisdom in the genetics of the plants, in the diversity of the food systems, which allows us to have greater resilience when you have impacts. Because those plants have been living there in that location, near that river, up that mountain, whatever it is, for millennia, they have very special wisdom encoded in their DNA and in their approach. We can see it in the complex biomes of the fynbos in the Cape. I mean, the diversity is astounding and that’s what nature has for us. So let’s work with nature. Ecology is nature that gives us that opportunity to work within the system and to have a mutually supportive relationship.

‘Agro’ is the agricultural side and it’s not to say that agroecology is like going back to a very traditional way of farming. There’s elements of farming traditionally which are very good and there’s elements that we need to have which are going to support us during climate change. And we need to critique that and keep thinking about what it looks like. It does not mean, however, that someone who’s created a genetically modified seed in the lab to be drought-resistant necessarily is going to be better than some beautiful plant that has lived there for millennia. So we need to be very careful in how we do our planning with the land. If you have a product that is a seed that cannot be shared or distributed among farmers, it becomes incredibly expensive for them to continue to farm like that. And when they’ve had a bad year, they can’t afford to buy more seed. This is why the approach of a business model, a purely business model to farming, is not going to serve those who are most vulnerable to the vagaries of our climate.

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