Innocents abroad? Is Gates foundation backing US corporate interests, not the poor? (16/10/2003)

excellent article
Innocents abroad?
Bill Gates's donation of $25m to fund GM research has led to criticism
that his foundation is backing US corporate interests, not the poor
John Vidal
The Guardian, Thursday October 16, 2003

Bill Gates wants to do public good with the immense profits of his IT empire, and over the past few years his foundation has given more than $6.5bn to global causes. The money has been well-received as socially useful and, generally, sensibly directed.

But this week the Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropic organisation in the world, was strongly criticised when it gave $25m to GM research to develop vitamin and protein-enriched seeds for the world's poor.

In scientific terms, this is not a lot of money, but it is expected to be just a first tranche and to stimulate what the GM companies say is the second generation of GM crops - those that are potentially of some real use to ordinary people.

Gates was bitten hard by international charities, farmers' groups and academics in Europe, India and elsewhere, who argued that the money would not go to addressing poverty, the root cause of worldwide hunger, but would promote an agriculture that was of little use to the very poor.

He was further accused of being captured by an industry now using the hungry as a "Trojan horse" to get its biotech into poor countries.

The foundation, and the research organisations who will spend his money, deny all charges, saying that the poor are in desperate need of vitamins and micro nutrients, and arguing that GM will give the poorest a choice.

But there are reasons to believe that the Gates food agenda is now being shaped by US corporate and govern ment interests. The Gates Foundation has recently appointed a Kenyan ex-Monsanto scientist to one of its boards, and last year joined Kraft foods, a subsidiary of Philip Morris, the world's largest and most profitable tobacco corporation, in a programme to add vitamins to conventionally grown foods.

Gates, moreover, has chosen for his latest venture to partner the US Department of Agriculture and USAID, Washington's overseas aid organisation - two of the most active pro-GM organisations in the world. Also helping with money or research, are several US government groups and universities who have benefited from government biotechnology grants.

The other major financial partner is the World Bank, which is reviewing the costs and benefits of GM to poor countries.

The Gates money, however, is directed at some of the least known but most controversial organisations on the global stage. The research will be done mainly by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Both are part of the little-known Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (Cgiar). This family of 16 global public institutes forms the world's largest public plant-breeding effort for poor farmers and has immense say on the direction of world agriculture.

But Cgiar is widely accused of being a creature of its two major funders - the US and the World Bank. The bank, dominated by the US, not only houses its secretariat, but provides its current chair.

Cgiar is only slightly better than the WTO when it comes to accessibility. It has only once held an annual meeting outside the bank offices and, when it did - last year in Thailand - there were major demonstrations against it by international and local farmers' organisations complaining that it was promoting a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to research that ignored the knowledge and experience of farmers and indigenous people.

Cgiar's public research, say NGOs in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, is being quietly corporatised, centralised in Washington and becoming remote from farmers in the developing world.

They argue that having promoted the "green revolution" of the 1960s - which introduced high-yielding, chemically dependent crops - Cgiar is now using large amounts of public money to develop GM foods, once again without consulting the people who the technology will most affect.

With hundreds of millions of small farmers around the world already in crisis because they cannot compete with US or EU subsidies which mainly go to corporate farmers, the Gates donation is seen to be supporting something irrelevant to most farmers - another kick in the teeth for those in poverty and an endorsement of a widely questioned technology dominated by vested big science interests.

Cgiar says its work is for the public, by public servants and it is aware of the power of GM companies to muscle in. But its backing of GM goes well beyond honest research. Last year it controversially invited the Syngenta Foundation on to its board.

This charitable, nominally independent organisation is owned by the largest GM company in the world and run by a former British civil servant who worked at the Department for International Development. Insiders believe it is only a matter of time before the Gates foundation is offered a place, too.

But why should the Gates Foundation be interested in a small, obscure organisation like Cgiar? Apart from strongly influencing the direction of world agriculture, one answer is that it is the custodian of more than 600,000 seeds, something that has been called the "collective wealth of nature and the food security of the world".

Almost every crop that has ever been grown is held in trust, and the unpatented genetic bank is of immense potential wealth to life science companies, not just for food but medicine. Already many have been investigating partnerships.

Bill Gates's foundation appears the innocent newcomer to the mucky world of global malnutrition and food security. The trouble may be that his foundation's increasing influence on the world stage makes it a prime target for those who have an agenda well beyond the public good.

John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor

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