Worldwatch in The Nation

The September 21 edition of The Nation featured an interesting commentary by Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez, and Annie Shattuck, all of Food First, that was critical of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support of agricultural development in Africa, and particularly of biotechnology projects.

Mark Suzman, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Gates Foundation, responded, mentioning a recent grant to the Worldwatch Institute for our Nourishing the Planet project as proof that the Foundation is concerned about environmental sustainability and agriculture. Patel et al. responded by congratulating Worldwatch for getting the grant, while criticizing Gates for giving money to a U.S.-based group, rather than African one.

We submitted our own response on the issue (below), but The Nation hasn’t posted it yet. Let us know what you think!

First, many thanks to The Nation and Food First for alerting readers to the need for increased funding in African agriculture. Investing in agriculture is the single most important way that countries can help alleviate hunger and poverty. And yet, investments in agricultural development by governments, international lenders, and foundations are at historic lows. As more decision makers and funders shift resources back toward agricultural development in the coming years, there is a gaping need for guidance.

Against this backdrop, the Worldwatch Institute is excited to have the opportunity to highlight stories of hope and success in African agriculture over the next two years through our Nourishing the Planet project.

One of the main goals of our work is to put a much-needed spotlight on farmer organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa, the very organizations and individuals that Mr. Patel, Mr. Holt-Gimenez, and Ms. Shattuck rightfully assert are essential to any meaningful discussion of sustainable agriculture in that region. The culmination of this project will be the report State of the World 2011, with a focus on hunger. We are working directly with farmer organizations and groups on the ground in Africa—as well as African journalists—to use this report to tell the yet-untold stories of triumph in this region.

You ask if the money might have been better spent supporting the dissemination of this proven knowledge within Africa. That is exactly what we hope to do with this project. Through Worldwatch’s worldwide network and its audience of government officials, policymakers, journalists, and NGOs, we will share the report with key stakeholders, including local farmers and policymakers. We believe these stories will inspire action, and that innovations in sustainable agriculture will consequently be implemented on a larger scale.

We do realize that throughout this project we will be standing on the shoulders of giants, including the International Agricultural Assessment of Science and Technology for Development that was released last year. We envision State of the World 2011 as a continuation of this work that will make IAASTD’s findings more accessible to wider audience and offer concrete recommendations. Two key audiences for this report will be the agricultural funding community, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and farmers and farmer groups on the ground in Africa.

Finally, you expressed concern that the framing of this project has the potential to be skewed. Since its inception in 1974, Worldwatch has maintained a solid reputation as a broker of independent, unbiased research. We bring our unwavering objectivity and dedication to truth to the Nourishing the Planet project. Worldwatch comes to this project without any pre-drawn conclusions or expectations of what the findings will be. And it is worth noting that, although it is too early to share all of our conclusions, there is strong opinion (and good evidence) that farmer-driven work—whether farmer-run seed banks, farmer-run marketing cooperatives, or farmer-run research—can be instrumental in reducing poverty and hunger.


Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg

Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg are Senior Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute and co-Project Directors of State of World 2011: Nourishing the Planet.

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