Toxic Agriculture and the Gates Foundation: Beware of Gates bearing Gifts?

Sri Lanka is primarily a rural-based small holding agricultural economy, and commercialisation could involve the consolidation of small holdings and the gradual disappearance of the way of life of many Sri Lankans who are rural-based. 

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Bill Gates during his visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute [Photo: Bill Gates ]

As for food security, the foundation would do better by supporting agroecological (agrochemical-free) approaches to agriculture, which various high-level UN reports have advocated for ensuring equitable global food security. This would leave smallholder agriculture both intact and independent from Western agro-capital, something which runs counter to the underlying aims of the corporations that the foundation supports – dispossession and market dependency- Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason

What is Digital Agriculture? Digital agriculture is reported as the integration of digital technology into livestock and crop management and other processes related to cultivating and managing food resources. The term is often used to describe the different uses for the variety of data collected in this sector. But it’s also about how technology integrates and works throughout the supply chain, from seeds or farm animals to the consumer. It is also referred to as smart agriculture. Smart agriculture needs availability of internet continuously and the ability and familiarity with technology, equipment, and methods, and very importantly, the capacity to use these.

An article by Colin Todhunter titled Toxic Agriculture and the Gates Foundationwhich prompted this writing ( worth reading in full considering its importance in light of the Daily FT news items “President Ranil Wickremesinghe and representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation discussed the digitisation of data in Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector, according to the President’s Media Division” ( and todays Daily FT news item that a delegation from the Bill Gates Foundation met with the President and other officials to discuss the modalities of assistance that the Foundation could provide towards the digital vision of Sri Lanka (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reassures support to Sri Lanka news item states “based on multiple conversations, with direct feedback coming from President Wickremesinghe, the Government and BMGF teams identified five concrete areas: agriculture, nutrition, financial inclusion, policy discussion and climate change. In agriculture, BMGF is supporting and aiming to formulate an Inclusive Digital Agriculture Transformation (IDAT) blueprint for Sri Lanka while in nutrition, BMFG has partnered with the World Food Program (WFP) to introduce rice fortification in chosen districts as a pilot project. The target impact is roughly around 265,000 school children which will reach over 1500 schools under this program.

To the best of the writer’s knowledge, the digitalisation vision has not been discussed widely with relevant stakeholders. It is suggested that readers, the government, the Opposition and others who are stakeholders in digitalising agriculture read Colin Todhunters article in full to get a broader perspective of issues relevant to the involvement of the Gates Foundation in pursuing this vision.  In saying this, no advocacy is being made against the Gates Foundation, but instead, advocating for appropriate technology for Sri Lanka and environmentally friendly inputs into the goal of achieving food security in the country. Social factors relevant to Sri Lankatoo should be uppermost in pursuing this goal.

While there is no argument that better productivity and better utilisation of agricultural land is a must for the country’s food security, if agriculture is to be digitalised in Sri Lanka,thought has to be given as to how digitalised/smart agriculture will impact on the society and whether it will inevitably lead to commercialisation of agriculture which is not in the psyche of the rural folk in the country. Sri Lanka is primarily a rural based small holding agricultural economy, and commercialisation could involve the consolidation of small holdings and the gradual disappearance of the way of life of many Sri Lankans who are rural based.  Consideration also has to be given in regard to the beneficiaries of digitalisation such as the industry that will be producing the technological inputs such as robots, drones etc. These are niche industries and probably will be for the foreseeable future, and consequently will be making substantial profits judging by what has been said about the robotics industry doubling their industry value to more than 10 billion US dollars in 5 years as stated in the Advanced Mobile Group website that notes the involvement of digitalisation and the increasing employment of technology in agriculture (,)

Artificial Intelligence is noted as being able to help professionals get the information they need quickly and avoid inefficiencies. Drones are  becoming common in the agricultural industry with China, reportedly using them to survey 20 million hectares of cotton crops, observing things that humans on the ground may not be able to see. Drones are said to be employed to provide insights about harvest timing, irrigation, pest protection, and much more.

Cloud Connectivity, that uses real-time internet connection to offer farmers more flexible digital solutions and economies of scale. As many farmers aren’t connected at all, adopting cloud connectivity is a massive upgrade, Data Analytics, it’s mentioned that by 2025, the world will store 175 zettabytes of data. That’s a lot of information to digest. Fortunately, some innovators are creating robust solutions that help those in the agricultural industry collect, store, and make sense of data. One has to ask the question whether these are the futuristic approaches Sri Lanka should adopt and join the rat race, or whether it should look to alternate options more appropriate for the country.

The following excerpts from Todhunter’s article are quoted here. Hopefully those who disagree with the views expressed in the article will present their counter views so that a more informed decision could be taken on the digitalisation vision for Sri Lanka

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 and has $46.8 billion in assets (December 2018). It is the largest charitable foundation in the world and distributes more aid for global health than any government.The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the CGIAR system (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) – a global partnership whose stated aim is to strive for a food-secured future. Its research is aimed at reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources.
  • In 2016, the Gates Foundation was accused of dangerously and unaccountably distorting the direction of international development. The charges were laid out in a report by Global Justice Now: ‘Gated Development – Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?‘ According to the report, the foundation’s strategy is based on deepening the role of multinational companies in the Global South.
  • Polly Jones, the head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, is quoted as saying “The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed. The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.”
  • Mark Curtis, author of a report by Global Justice Now titled ‘Gated Development – Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?describes how the foundation is working with US agri-commodity trader Cargill in an $8 million project to “develop the soya value chain” in southern Africa. Curtis says “Cargill is the biggest global player in the production of and trade in soya with heavy investments in South America where GM soya monocrops (and associated agrochemicals) have displaced rural populations and caused health problems and environmental damage”.According to Curtis, the Gates-funded project will likely enable Cargill to capture a hitherto untapped African soya market and eventually introduce GM soya onto the continent. The Gates foundation is also supporting projects involving other chemical and seed corporations, including DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer. It is effectively promoting a model of industrial agriculture, the increasing use of agrochemicals and patented seeds, the privatisation of extension services and a very large focus on genetically modified crops.
  • Curtis says that what the Gates Foundation is doing is part of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) initiative, and has been intervening directly in the formulation of African governments’ agricultural policies on issues like seeds and land, opening up African markets to US agribusiness.More than 80% of Africa’s seed supply comes from millions of small-scale farmers recycling and exchanging seed from year to year. But AGRA is promoting the commercial production of seed and is thus supporting the introduction of commercial (chemical-dependent) seed systems, which risk enabling a few large companies to control seed research and development, production and distribution.
  • Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Masonnotes that the Gates Foundation is reported to be collaborating in Bayer’s promotion of “new chemical approaches” and “biological crop protection” (i.e. encouraging agrochemical sales and GM crops) in the Global South. She goes on to state that after having read the recent ‘A Future for the World’s Children? A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission’, she noticed that pesticides were conspicuous by their absence in the report authored by Professor Anthony Costello, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health. Although the Costello-led report mentions greater regulation of marketing of tobacco, alcohol, formula milk and sugar-sweetened beverages but no mention of pesticides.The Gates Foundation is a prominent funder of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Gates has been the largest or second largest contributor to the WHO’s budget in recent years. His foundation provided 11% of the WHO’s entire budget in 2015, which is 14 times greater than the UK government’s contribution.Perhaps this sheds some light onto why a major report on child health would omit the effects of pesticides.
  • UN expert on toxics  BaskutTuncak said in a November 2017 article in the Guardian:“Our children are growing up exposed to a toxic cocktail of weedkillers, insecticides, and fungicides. It’s on their food and in their water, and it’s even doused over their parks and playgrounds. Many governments insist that our standards of protection from these pesticides are strong enough.

But as a scientist and a lawyer who specialises in chemicals and their potential impact on people’s fundamental rights, Tuncakbegs to differ. Last month it was revealed that in recommending that glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used pesticide – was safe, the EU’s food safety watchdog copied and pasted pages of a report directly from Monsanto, the pesticide’s manufacturer. Revelations like these are simply shocking.”

  • Tuncak rejected the idea that the risks posed by highly hazardous pesticides could be managed safely. He told Unearthed (GreenPeace UK’s journalism website) that there is nothing sustainable about the widespread use of highly hazardous pesticides for agriculture. Whether they poison workers, extinguish biodiversity, persist in the environment or accumulate in a mother’s breast milk, Tuncak argued that these are unsustainable, cannot be used safely and should have been phased out of use long ago.In his 2017 article, he stated:“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most ratified international human rights treaty in the world (only the US is not a party), makes it clear that states have an explicit obligation to protect children from exposure to toxic chemicals, from contaminated food and polluted water, and to ensure that every child can realise their right to the highest attainable standard of health. These and many other rights of the child are abused by the current pesticide regime. These chemicals are everywhere and they are invisible.”
  • Tuncak added that paediatricians have referred to childhood exposure to pesticides as creating a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability. He noted that exposure in pregnancy and childhood is linked to birth defects, diabetes, and cancer and stated that children are particularly vulnerable to these toxic chemicals: increasing evidence shows that even at ‘low’ doses of childhood exposure, irreversible health impacts can result.He concluded that the overwhelming reliance of regulators on industry-funded studies, the exclusion of independent science from assessments and the confidentiality of studies relied upon by authorities must change.However, it seems that the profits of agrochemical manufacturers trump the rights of  children and the public at large: a joint investigation by Unearthed and the NGO Public Eye has found the world’s five biggest pesticide manufacturers are making more than a third of their income from leading products, chemicals that pose serious hazards to human health and the environment.
  • Dr Rosemary Mason refers to an analysis of a huge database of 2018’s top-selling ‘crop protection products’ which revealed the world’s leading agrochemical companies made more than 35% of their sales from pesticides classed as “highly hazardous” to people, animals or ecosystems. The investigation identified billions of dollars of income for agrochemical giants BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC and Syngenta from chemicals found by regulatory authorities to pose health hazards like cancer or reproductive failure.
  • This investigation is based on an analysis of a huge dataset of pesticide sales from the agribusiness intelligence company Phillips McDougall. This firm conducts detailed market research all over the world and sells databases and intelligence to pesticide companies. The data covers around 40% of the $57.6bn global market for agricultural pesticides in 2018. It focuses on 43 countries, which between them represent more than 90% of the global pesticide market by value.
  • While Bill Gates promotes a chemical-intensive model of agriculture that dovetails with the needs and value chains of agri-food conglomerates, Mason outlines the spiraling rates of disease in the UK and the US and lays the blame at the door of the agrochemical corporations that Gates has opted to get into bed with. She focuses on the impact of glyphosate-based herbicides as well as the cocktail of chemicals sprayed on crops.
  • Mason presents evidence that glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals – diseases skip a generation then appear.However, the mainstream narrative is to blame individuals for their ailments and conditions which are said to result from ‘lifestyle choices’. Yet Monsanto’s German owner Bayer has confirmed that more than 42,700 people have filed suits against Monsanto alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto covered up the risks.Mason says that each year there are steady increases in the numbers of new cancers and increases in deaths from the same cancers, with no treatments making any difference to the numbers; at the same time, she argues, these treatments maximise the bottom line of the drug companies while the impacts of agrochemicals remains conspicuously absent from the disease narrative.She states that we are exposed to a lifetime’s exposure to thousands of synthetic chemicals that contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested – “a global mass poisoning.”

Gates Foundation in perspective

Rosemary Mason says that “as part of its hegemonic strategy, the Gates Foundation says it wants to ensure global food security and optimise health and nutrition.However, she alludes to the fact that the Gates Foundation seems happy to ignore the deleterious health impacts of agrochemicals while promoting the interests of the firms that produce them, but it facilitates many health programmes that help boost the bottom line of drug companies. 

Health and health programmes seem only to be defined with certain parameters which facilitate the selling of the products of the major pharmaceutical companies which the foundation partners with. Indeed, researcher Jacob Levich argues that the Gates Foundation not merely facilitates unethical low-cost clinical trials (with often devastating effects for participants) in the Global South but also assists in the creating new markets for the “dubious” products of pharmaceuticals corporations.And these aims have been part of a decades-long strategy where we have seen the strengthening of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF ‘structural adjustment’ directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas.

While Bill Gates is busy supporting the consolidation of Western agro-capital in Africa under the guise of ensuring ‘food security’, it is very convenient for him to ignore the fact that at the time of decolonisation in the 1960s Africa was not just self-sufficient in food but was actually a net food exporter with exports averaging 1.3 million tons a year between 1966-70. The continent now imports 25% of its food, with almost every country being a net food importer. More generally, developing countries produced a billion-dollar yearly surplus in the 1970s but by 2004 were importing US$ 11 billion a year.

The Gates Foundation promotes a (heavily subsidised and inefficient – certainly when the externalised health, social and environment costs are factored in) corporate-industrial farming system and the strengthening of a global neoliberal, fossil-fuel-dependent food regime that by its very nature fuels and thrives on, among other things, unjust trade policies, population displacement and land dispossession (something which the Gates Foundation once called for but euphemistically termed “land mobility”), commodity monocropping, soil and environmental degradation, illness, nutrient-deficient diets, a narrowing of the range of food crops, water shortages, pollution and the eradication of biodiversity.

At the same time, the foundation is helping powerful corporate interests to appropriate and commodify knowledge. For instance, since 2003, CGIAR (mentioned at the start of this article) and its 15 centres have received more than $720 million from the Gates Foundation. In a June 2016 article in The Asian Age, Vandana Shiva says the centres are accelerating the transfer of research and seeds to corporations, facilitating intellectual property piracy and seed monopolies created through IP laws and seed regulations.Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in CGIAR seed banks, Shiva adds that the Gates Foundation (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in a facility in Svalbard in the Arctic — the ‘doomsday vault’.

The foundation is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global initiative to take patents on the seed collections through genomic mapping. Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks.

Shiva says that DivSeek could allow five corporations to own this diversity and argues:“Today, biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology. It is done by taking patents by ‘mapping’ genomes and genome sequences… DivSeek is a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks. It robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to ‘code’. It is an extractive project to ‘mine’ the data in the seed to ‘censor’ out the commons.”She notes that the peasants who evolved this diversity have no place in DivSeek – their knowledge is being mined and not recognised, honoured or conserved: an enclosure of the genetic commons.

This process is the very foundation of capitalism – appropriation of the commons (seeds, water, knowledge, land, etc.), which are then made artificially scarce and transformed into marketable commodities.The Gates Foundation talks about health but facilitates the roll-out of a toxic form of agriculture whose agrochemicals cause immense damage. It talks of alleviating poverty and malnutrition and tackling food insecurity but it bolsters an inherently unjust global food regime which is responsible for perpetuating food insecurity, population displacement, land dispossession, privatisation of the commons and neoliberal policies that remove support from the vulnerable and marginalised, while providing lavish subsidies to corporations.

The Gates Foundation is part of the problem, not the solution. To more fully appreciate this, let us turn to a February 2020 article in the journal Globalizations. Its author, Ashok Kumbamu, argues that the ultimate aim of promoting new technologies – whether GM seeds, agrochemicals or commodified knowledge – on a colossal scale is to make agricultural inputs and outputs essential commodities, create dependency and bring all farming operations into the capitalist fold.

Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

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