NY, Tuesday, March 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news:
Four of the world's largest agricultural companies have
agreed to share their technology free with African scientists
in a broad new attempt to increase food production on
that continent, where mass starvation is a recurring
The companies, based in the United States and Europe,
said they would donate patent rights, seed varieties,
laboratory know-how and other aid to help African agricultural
scientists who are working with small farmers to battle
plant disease, insects and drought.
A new organization, the African Agricultural Technology
Foundation, is being set up in Nairobi to spearhead
the project. In an effort to cut through the thicket
of patent rights and corporate interests that complicates
many research projects in biology, the foundation will
aim to identify crop problems in Africa that might be
amenable to technological solutions. It then plans to
negotiate with the Western companies for assistance
and patent licenses and seek support from African governments
to help put new resources -- usually in the form of
improved plant varieties -- into the hands of small
subsistence farmers across the continent.
About 190 million Africans south of the Sahara, a third
of the population, routinely lack sufficient food. It
is the world's largest remaining concentration of people
who go to bed hungry at night.
The effort faces substantial pitfalls, such as the
sheer difficulty of the work and the complicated politics
of international development. Because the companies
involved sell farm chemicals, such as pesticides, and
develop genetically altered crops, people involved said
the foundation risks being seen as a front for multinational
corporate interests. And, in part because the foundation
will consider genetic engineering as one potential solution
to the problems in any given crop, skepticism is likely
from environmental groups, whose influence in Africa
Several groups, the U.S. government and the agricultural
companies have been supporting piecemeal efforts to
aid African farmers for years, with a few notable successes.
But the new foundation appears to be the most comprehensive
attempt yet to bring the expertise of the major Western
companies to bear on the problem. The companies have
spent decades learning about drought and pest tolerance
in plants, and filing patents on the results -- knowledge
that has rarely been tapped in a thoroughgoing way to
The foundation will be controlled by a majority African
board and run by Eugene Terry, a plant pathologist from
Sierra Leone known across the continent for his work
with cassava, a tropical plant whose starchy roots are
used to make bread and tapioca.
The entity is the brainchild of the Rockefeller Foundation,
a New York charity that has long focused on efforts
to feed the world's poor. Research programs launched
by the foundation produced the "Green Revolution"
in Asia and Latin America, vastly increasing crop yields
and improving nutrition in many countries even in the
face of rapid population increases. Norman Borlaug,
a foundation scientist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in
1970 for his work; the Nobel committee declared that
"more than any other single person of this age,
he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world."
For several reasons, Africa was largely bypassed by
the Green Revolution, which produced new, high-yielding
varieties of the world's great cereals, wheat and rice.
These new varieties required vast swaths of irrigated
land and intensive application of fertilizers and pesticides.
India, China and other developing countries launched
programs to get those tools to poor farmers, but African
governments generally did not. Traditional African agriculture
is a patchwork of staple crops, such as chickpeas and
cassava, that were low on the priority list for Green
It's now recognized that the Green Revolution was environmentally
costly, in part because many of the chemicals were toxic.
Gordon Conway, an ecologist and president of the Rockefeller
Foundation, has acknowledged these failings and called
for a "doubly green revolution" in Africa
that will be more sensitive to environmental concerns.
Conway plans to formally outline the African Agricultural
Technology Foundation in Washington tomorrow in the
context of a larger speech about the prospects for food
security in Africa. Plans for the organization are already
well underway, however, and people in New York, Washington,
Africa and Europe described them at length. Conway plans
to seek support from African ambassadors to the United
States at a meeting tonight in Washington. The U.S.
Agency for International Development, an arm of the
government, and its counterpart in Britain are helping
to bankroll the plan.
Conway said the Rockefeller Foundation does not expect
technology to be a magic bullet for Africa's deep agricultural
problems, which include depleted soils and a lack of
roads to haul crops to market.
"Technologies are either available or can be available
to provide a partial solution to these problems,"
Conway said. "What we know from the Green Revolution
is that certain technologies can have a dramatic effect.
They can transform people's lives."
Two American corporations, Monsanto Co. of St. Louis
and DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., have enthusiastically
embraced the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
The two firms control the leading American seed producers
and own the bulk of the patented technologies that African
researchers may want to use.
Getting involved "has been fantastic for us,"
said Gerard F. Barry, director of research in a Monsanto
unit that spearheads technology-sharing projects. Speaking
by cellular phone from a cornfield in Brazil, his DuPont
colleague, William Niebur, declared: "I think we
have a real opportunity to bring not only our technology
but our experience and commitment to world agriculture."
Two other agriculture companies, Syngenta AG of Basel,
Switzerland, and Dow AgroSciences LLC of Indianapolis,
said that they, too, were committed to the project.
The companies say they plan to support the foundation
for noble reasons, while acknowledging that in the long
run they also hope to create new markets in Africa.
They're also searching for ways to burnish their image
amid a continuing public relations battle over their
development of gene-altered crops. And the companies
are mindful of the harsh lessons learned by the pharmaceutical
industry for its failure to help Africa battle the AIDS
crisis by supplying low-cost drugs. One way to undercut
the argument that patents cost lives is to donate the
use of those patents for humanitarian causes.
The new foundation will focus on improvements in staple
crops of vital importance to tens of millions of Africans,
including cowpeas, chickpeas, cassava, sweet potatoes,
bananas and corn. Of these crops, only corn represents
a meaningful market in Africa now for the ag companies.
Terry said his goal as the foundation's first executive
director will be to serve as an honest broker between
environmentalists, African farmers and corporate interests.
"We definitely have to be able to pass the test
of not being a front organization for these companies,"
Tewolde B.G. Egziabher, manager of Ethiopia's environmental
protection authority and one of the continent's leading
voices on conservation and development issues, said
he would keep an open mind about the new group and its
organizers. But he warned that if the foundation comes
to be seen as just a vehicle for pushing genetic engineering
in Africa, it will fail.
"I am certain they mean well," he said from
Berlin, where he was seeking medical treatment. But
he added that African leaders have moved beyond the
era when they "felt that the way to develop is
the way the United States and the colonial masters tell
He expressed particular worry that the project would
create seed varieties that entirely supplant the traditional
ones Africans have grown. Eventually, he said, the Western
companies will want to be paid for their seed, instead
of giving the technology away, and if the old varieties
are lost, poor African farmers might have nothing to
fall back on.
Where Egziabher sees a cause for worry, however, other
people in Africa see an opportunity. Godber W. Tumushabe,
who runs a think tank for development and the environment
in Uganda, has agreed to serve on the foundation's board,
where he said he would play a watchdog role. It would
not be a bad thing, he said, if eventually the Western
companies find a market among African farmers with rising
"As a matter of fact we have to be cautious, because
these are private entities, driven by profits,"
Tumushabe said from Kampala. "If they are able
to achieve their objective in the long term, of building
strong markets, but in the short term we are able to
improve the life of our people, our interests have met."