Today there are 257 million people in Africa experiencing hunger, and successive poor harvests in recent years mean the situation is getting worse. According to Famine Early Warning Network, an organization providing early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity in Africa, large parts of Eastern and Southern Africa are now in “crisis” and heading toward famine.
Drought and political unrest are the most widely cited causes of this humanitarian catastrophe. But behind these causes is an alliance of deep-pocketed NGOs and highly politicized UN agencies, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the lead. Together, they are imposing an extremist anti-modern-agriculture agenda on a suffering continent.
Across Africa, international NGOs like the German-funded Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) in Kenya (funded by the German Heinrich Böll Foundation – affiliated with the German Green Party Movement and a recipient of German taxpayer money), want to eliminate the technologies of modern farming. These include modern fertilizers, pesticides, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), used safely around the world by the most successful agricultural producers, and in the future, gene-edited plants. In their place, they want to impose farming practices of more than a century, or two to three centuries, past. Even as the worst locust plague in 75 years devastates crops across East Africa, for example, RTFI is pushing Kenya to ban hundreds of approved agricultural pesticides farmers use to protect their crops -- including those critical to stopping the locusts.
FAO once brought in experts on agriculture, now they are simply in opposition to corporations
These NGOs have an unexpected ally in FAO. Historically, FAO has employed some of the best agricultural scientists, extension workers and development specialists anywhere in the world. These men and women are dedicated to helping African and farmers the world over find practical, science-based solutions, and use the best possible proven methods and technologies to increase crop yields, protect the environment and expand agricultural development. But today, high-level political FAO appointees with a very different agenda are pushing them aside.
In a recent speech, U.S. Ambassador to FAO, Kip Tom, charged that this “anti-capitalist” and “anti-trade” ideology is undermining innovative farm technologies that are “key to global food security.” This anti-technology, anti-science agenda was on full display last summer at the FAO-sponsored Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative conference in Nairobi. Working closely with anti- agricultural technology NGOs, European Union officials and European governments, the global organic industry and American environmental activists, FAO trotted out speaker after speaker who blamed modern intensive agriculture for every environmental and farm production problem imaginable.
Participants were regaled with fevered fantasies such as that GMOs cause cancer and are part of Western corporate conspiracies to make them sick and control their food systems. One speaker even alleged that the herbicide glyphosate (approved for use in every advanced, industrialized country, including the EU) gives “plants a bad case of AIDS” -- a scientific non-sequitur divorced from plant biology but specifically calculated to frighten Africans with a long history of enormous suffering as a result of the HIV/AIDS virus in humans.
To those familiar with the degeneration of this once-widely-admired pillar of international humanitarianism, the fact that FAO is sponsoring a forum for such scientific misinformation and hysterical condemnations of technology is no surprise. It reflects an anti-progress ideology that has wormed its way into the elitist thinking at the UN and took root at the FAO during the administration of FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva (2012-2019). Da Silva championed cooperating with such NGOs as La Via Campesina, which opposes modern agricultural technologies, free trade, and free markets. In other words, while calling itself “the international peasants’ voice,” La Via Campesina really stands for keeping peasants hungry, poor and in their place.
This ideology has a name: Agroecology. At FAO, and a growing number of global farm and aid NGOs, it is the latest development fad. It was originally – and benignly – conceived as pairing ecosystem science with traditional farming methods. Its adherents promoted tried and tested practices to help farmers with limited resources increase yields and better manage their land; for instance, farmers unable to afford machinery or mineral fertilizer using their own labor to diversify operations and create their own inputs such as fertilizer from livestock.
Agroecology should not mean opposition to science
Today, agroecology simply denotes opposition to every tool farmers have to increase production and augment their income while bringing down food prices around the globe. Imposing a low-tech, near subsistence-type of organic agriculture on famine-challenged Africa is the most disturbing manifestation of the agroecology movement but hardly the only one.
FAO’s ambivalence toward modern farming technologies existed long before Sr. da Silva came along. For decades, advocates like Miguel Altieri (a long-serving member of the FAO’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Programme steering committee) have denounced the Green Revolution -- which saved billions from starvation and poverty -- as a failure. In its place, Altieri has worked with NGOs such as the Third World Network (TNW) to advocate for “peasant agriculture” as the basis for 21st Century farming. Having helped greenwash regimes like Venezuela whose agricultural policies have been a disaster for its farmers, environment and economy, TNW’s role as a defender of peasants is dubious at best.
The inauguration of a new FAO Director General, China’s Qu Dongyu, could signal an opportunity to reset FAO’s vision for Africa’s farmers and re-evaluate its troubling associations with the anti-technology NGOs and their fellow travelers. But, for the moment, FAO remains deeply enmeshed in supporting NGOs intent on transforming African farming through fear and bad science.
This August in Nairobi, for example, along with the World Health Organization and the Organic Consumer Alliance, FAO is sponsoring the All African Congress on Safe Foods and Diseases in Africa. Staged by the World Preservation Center (funded with grants from the United States Agency for International Development – USAID), the agenda includes well known anti-GMO figures such as Don Huber and Stephanie Seneff. For almost a decade now Huber has claimed to have identified a mysterious super bug caused by GMOs and glyphosate that is killing animals and plants en masse, though none appear to be either sick or dying and Huber refuses to make his claimed evidence public. Seneff is widely ridiculed for her claim that glyphosate causes autism.
No respectable scientific organization would give these people the time of day. Someone should ask FAO Director General Qu and USAID Director Peter Natiello if this is the kind of “science” their respective agencies endorse.
If Qu is serious about turning FAO around, his agency must make better, smarter choices of allies, methods and programs to help African farmers. The focus must be on tools and practical methods that help farmers solve their daily problems and not on limiting their options. Like pests, blight and infestations, wrong-headed NGOs -- from countries which for generations have been free from starvation and crop failures -- are now just another threat to African agriculture-- and that’s how FAO should treat them.