Bill Gates recently became the U.S.’s largest landowner, including his acquired 242,000 acres of farmland, and left the Western world wondering about his newfound interest in farming

It’s no secret that Bill Gates has a vested interest and belief in the industrial and technological approach to tackling climate change—and it seems that buying up farmland has been part of the plan for a second Green Revolution: one that includes securing a reliable food system in GMO seed production.

While many corporations believe that large-scale innovations are the solution to saving the planet, this very model of industrial agriculture and gene-editing seeds is largely to blame for global greenhouse gas emissions, the destruction of our soil health due to the increased use of toxic pesticides, and is responsible for the phasing out of small, family farmers around the world.

The introduction of GMO seeds and AGRA

Gates admits that subsistence farmers and impoverished communities will be the most effected by climate change, which was the reasoning behind his foundation’s launch of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) in 2006. This institution was meant to be farmer-centered and African-led, with a goal to boost crop yields and the incomes of millions of small farmers so they could lift themselves and their families out of hunger and poverty.

In pursuit of creating a reliable food system, AGRA initiated GMO seeds into small farmers' crop rotations in order to predict and mitigate any variation in seeds, reassuring skeptical farmers that they would double their yield, and have financial stability and overall independent resilience. However, since AGRA’s establishment, there’s evidence that their intervention failed to help small farmers and may actually be worsening the hunger and malnutrition crisis. As of today, in countries where AGRA has been active, yields of stable crops have only increased 18 percent while undernourishment has increased by 30 percent.

There has been growing concern over a loss of local, traditional crops and local seed varieties, as well as the limitations of these GMO crops to perform in complex environments. In dozens of reports since 2007, the South Africa-based Centre for Biodiversity has documented problems with the Gates-led “Green Revolution” for Africa, including growing corporate control over the seed sector, expanding the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and all around negative impacts on small farmers.

The detriment to generational farmers continues as AGRA has been working to commodify the industry. By lobbying the governments to make it illegal to sell or use heritage, rare and ancestral seeds, they’ve left small farmers completely dependent on corporate seeds and agrochemicals. As policies strengthen, we’ve seen how agriculture is slowly being replaced with agribusiness: a money-first, quick-fix way to save the planet.African farmers sierra leonePhoto by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Farming with a financial focus

Like many large-scale operations, the installation of GMO seeds, pesticides and herbicides into agriculture didn’t start out with malicious intent; corporations genuinely believed they could design systems to feed our growing population faster—and more successfully—than small farmers could. The Gates Foundation alone invested billions over the past 17 years trying to “improve agriculture.” 

Since then, finances have been funnelled into developing technologies in research centres and corporations, grants have been given to groups that lobby on behalf of industrial farming, and policies have been shaped to support industrial farmers. After all of the grants, initiatives and funds promised to small farmers’ yields and lands, the only population that has seen growth is the western billionaires.

Rather than embracing the existing holistic methods and local farmers’ knowledge of preserving biodiversity, instead the Foundation’s big investments have gone towards biofortification initiatives that seek to artificially pack nutrients into single-crop commodities. With the acquirement of the new farmland in St. Louis, Gates plans on continuing the development of resilient GMO seeds alongside Monsanto, a seed- and pesticide-producing company for industrial agriculture companies.

We’ve seen the fallout of the lack of diversity in crops before, and it looks like mass famine, desertification, and an increased loss of soil health.

A history of famine in monocrops

Any time throughout history where monocrops (one type of crop) have been introduced, such as the Irish Potato Famine or the GMO corn failure in South Africa, we’ve seen complete desertification of lands and the starvation of populations. This is because when a single crop is planted throughout a large portion of a field, it’s vulnerable to the same pest or disease wiping it out in one go.

Yes, GMO seeds promise resistance to pests, floods and diseases, but genetic engineering can only target one gene at a time, where traditional seed-breeding techniques tackle multiple genetics at a time. Nature’s breeding methods are complex and are proven more effective at developing drought-tolerant crops and ones that are pest- and disease-proof in the long run. Allowing seeds to naturally adapt to conditions and saving them year after year is how ancestral farmers and growers have been resilient to changes in the past—and may continue to produce resilient crops for the future.

As climate change worsens, we need seeds that are diverse and ones that have proven to be heartier and more adaptable year after year. Overall, genetic diversity in our seeds will help individual species adjust to new conditions, diseases and pests, and will aid ecosystems to adapt to a changing environment or severe conditions.

The solution is small

As small as a single seed planted by a local farmer or gardener.

Industrial-minded agribusiness tells us otherwise, but the solution to growing food for our changing climate is simple: keeping our food system in the hands of small farmers, growing a large portion of our own food at home, and preserving local and genetically diverse seeds.

The world’s farmland is finite, and as more large corporations (or billionaires) scoop it up, the less opportunity there is for small-scale growers and Indigenous communities to preserve and maintain its biodiversity. Taking land away from billionaires and redistributing it to the hands of small farmers can help to re-establish tree cover and native grasslands while helping to feed communities with healthy and nutrient-dense foods for generations.

Small farms are known to generate and distribute wealth locally and fairly, and for building dynamic communities without the need for chemicals or fossil fuels, while still producing higher and more nutritious yields. The one thing they can’t do is make billionaires. Small farms don’t provide extractive and exploitive opportunities for corporations to make money, which is why they (and their traditional methods) are being phased out.  

This is really a battle of what our food system should look like and who should govern it: the instantly gratifying, industrial methods or the ancestral farmers who have been responsibly doing this work for generations?

Small farmers are having their seed and growing rights taken from them, and we can help divert farmland and money away from corporations to allow generational farmers to be self-sufficient again. Check out @agrowingculture on Instagram to see how we can keep our food system with small growers, or any of the links throughout the article.