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March 23, 2009 8:07 AM

Local group challenges Gates Foundation on agriculture

Posted by Kristi Heim

A local group called AGRA Watch is taking aim at some of the strategies for improving agricultural production supported by the Gates Foundation.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), was created and funded by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations in an effort to help small farmers improve productivity by using better seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and access to broader markets.

AGRA Watch calls that approach "politically, environmentally, socially, and ethically problematic." It's too heavily focused on technology solutions such as genetic modification, fertilizer and pesticides, rather than what could be more ecological farming methods and indigenous practices, say the group of volunteers, who are part of the Community Alliance for Global Justice.

The Gates Foundation has said it will consider many different methods to improve farming, but that soil in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa lacks sufficient nitrogen for organic agriculture alone.

AGRA Watch is holding a series of talks next month at the University of Washington. While the topic has provoked polite and somewhat indirect debate in two recent forums, rarely have local groups come forward with such an openly critical position on one of the Gates Foundation's programs.

Finding the right answers has become more urgent as the dally food intake of many of the world's poorest people dropped in the recent food crisis, and climate change complicates the problem.

Phil Bereano, UW professor emeritus in technical communication, kicks off the group's meetings April 1 with a critique of Gates' support of technology and the assumption that technology is in itself neutral. Other sessions are planned on genetically modified seeds, problems of the original Green Revolution in Africa and the role large agribusiness plays.

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