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Monday, 11 October 2010 03:12

Chemical Relations: Monsanto and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently bought some 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock. It is also working in collaboration with Cargill. Why is the foundation, considered one of the world's leading philanthropic organizations, working so closely with corporate outlaws?

By most mainstream media accounts - especially the recent segment about her on CBS' "60 Minutes" - Melinda Gates, the wife of Microsoft's Bill Gates, is a smart, caring, highly-motivated and well-organized woman seeking to do great good both at home and abroad. As the co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she, along with her husband, are the world's most generous philanthropists. They have given away of hundreds of millions of dollars to such diverse efforts as improving education in the U.S., the elimination of diseases like Malaria in underdeveloped countries, fighting HIV/AIDS, and the prevention of mother and child deaths around the world.

"I have to be here. To see it, and to feel it, and to understand, you know, what motivates these people," Melinda Gates told "60 Minutes'" Scott Pelley, during a Foundation trip to north India. "What is it that they're doing for their livelihood? Unless I see it and feel it and touch it, I just don't feel like I can do the foundation justice in terms of what we're trying to accomplish."

For the most part, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gets the positive recognition that it deserves. However, every once in a while something comes up that makes you wonder exactly how much attention the Gates' are paying to some nitty-gritty details, like its investments portfolio.

Gates Foundation and Monsanto: Unlikely or unholy relationship?

According to a late-September post at the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog, the Foundation -- which sponsors the Guardian's Global development site - "is being heavily criticized in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM company Monsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill."

The criticism was set off when a financial website in the U.S. "published the foundation's annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m," in the second quarter of 2010. Apparently the purchase was "a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics," the Guardian reported.

One of the Foundation's most persistent critics is the Seattle-based Agra Watch (http://agrawatch.wordpress.com/) -- a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice (http://www.seattleglobaljustice.org/). According to a late-August Agra Watch press release titled "Gates Foundation Invests in Monsanto: Both will profit at expense of small-scale African Farmers," "Farmers, and civil society organizations around the world are outraged by the recent discovery of further connections between ... [the foundation] and agribusiness titan Monsanto."

The press release pointed out that "Monsanto has already negatively impacted agriculture in African countries. For example, in South Africa in 2009, Monsanto's genetically modified maize failed to produce kernels and hundreds of farmers were devastated. According to Mariam Mayet, environmental attorney and director of the Africa Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, some farmers suffered up to an 80% crop failure. While Monsanto compensated the large-scale farmers to whom it directly sold the faulty product, it gave nothing to the small-scale farmers to whom it had handed out free sachets of seeds."

Mayet said that "When the economic power of Gates is coupled with the irresponsibility of Monsanto, the outlook for African smallholders is not very promising." Agra Watch's press release also noted that "Monsanto's aggressive patenting practices have also monopolized control over seed in ways that deny farmers control over their own harvest, going so far as to sue - and bankrupt - farmers for 'patent infringement.'"

"The Foundation's direct investment in Monsanto is problematic on two primary levels," said Dr. Phil Bereano, University of Washington Professor Emeritus and recognized expert on genetic engineering. "First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests."

"Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world... [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa."

In 2008, Agra Watch "uncovered many linkages between the Foundation's grantees and Monsanto," the press release pointed out. "Some grantees (about 70% of the grantees in Kenya) of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) - considered by the Foundation to be its 'African face' - work directly with Monsanto on agricultural development projects." In addition, several high-ranking Foundation operatives, including Rod Horsch, formerly Monsanto Vice President of International Development Partnerships, is now the Senior Program Officer of the Gates Agricultural Development Program.

According to The Oread Daily's (http://oreaddaily.blogspot.com/) Randy Gould, "In 2006 the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their aim 'is to alleviate poverty and hunger in Africa by increasing food production.' Much like the original green revolution, which still plagues farmers throughout India and Latin America, their mission is to increase production by increasing the amount of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and chemical dependent high-yield seed varieties farmers use. They are also aggressively pushing genetically modified seeds and the involvement of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto."

Marie-Monique Robin's 'The World According to Monsanto'

Marie-Monique Robin, a French journalist who has produced several books and documentaries, and is the daughter of small farmers, "dedicate[d] four years of her life to investigating the leading global company in the transgenic industry, Monsanto, which now owns 90% of GMOs grown worldwide (mainly soy, corn, cotton and canola)," the Organic Consumer Association's Laura Stefani wrote in 2009. In an interview, Robin told Steffani that while she has "always been interested in human rights and agriculture ... [she] began to work on the dangers facing biodiversity: here the three issues are interlinked to an incredible extent."

Robin's work resulted in "The World According to Monsanto," which Steffani described as "an investigative book which covers the history, hidden strategies and true objectives of the controversial multinational" (http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_18084.cfm).

The book was published in Italy and translated into 13 languages, and the DVD film version has been distributed in 22 countries. In an interview with Robin, Steffani asked her whether Monsanto can be trusted, given its record of lying "on many occasions, particularly regarding the toxicity of its products, from PCBs (polychlorobiphenyls) to dioxin, and Agent Orange used in Vietnam.... [and] now [with its] genetically manipulating [of] seeds entering our diet."

Robin answered that Monsanto had "lied in the past and are continuing to do so, even if their website says things like 'we help small farmers to produce healthier food with reduced environmental impact.' In fact none of this is true, just look at Roundup Ready seeds (RR). GM soy, for example, the first GMO launched on the market, now constitutes 90% of all soy grown in the US. It has been manipulated to resist a powerful glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup which has been produced by Monsanto since the 1970s (since 1988 there has also been a version for home gardens).

"The multinational maintained that it was a 100% biodegradable herbicide that was completely harmless for humans and the environment. Too bad that it has been found guilty, first in the US and recently in France, for misleading advertising. Last year a confidential Monsanto study was made public where it was stressed that only 2% of Roundup decomposes in the soil, and then only after 28 days! A far cry from the concept of biodegradability. This is a crucial lie, since 70% of GMOs currently grown in the world have been genetically manipulated so they can be sprayed with Roundup."

To add injury to injury, the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog also pointed out that the "South Africa-based watchdog the African Center for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to 'develop the soya value chain' in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa."

The Gates' involvement withy Monsanto and Cargill "raise a host of questions for the foundation," Poverty Matters pointed out. "Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world's most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State's model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of 'feeding the world.'

The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world's food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?"

Poverty Matters noted that "the foundation has never been upfront about its vision for agriculture in the world's poorest countries, nor the role of controversial technologies like GM. But perhaps it could start the debate here? In the meantime, it could tell us how many of its senior agricultural staff used to work for Monsanto or Cargill?"