Issue 253: February 2008


 Lady Bountiful Version 2.08

Reading yet another press release about the philanthropy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – this time a $19.9 million grant to The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) – I was struck by the language describing this grant and others by Gates that are “designed to help small farmers boost their yields and increase their incomes so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” According to Gates, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “These investments—from improving the quality of seeds, to developing healthier soil, to creating new markets—will pay off not only in children fed and lives saved. They can have a dramatic impact on poverty reduction as families generate additional income and improve their lives.”

Charity – the obligation of the wealthy to help the deserving poor – is nothing new. The key, of course, is in the word ‘deserving’. The ‘deserving’ poor in the era of Lady Bountiful were the appropriately subservient, those who could be counted upon to be grateful for the largesse and not to challenge the upper class. The new philanthropy is not much different.

While on the surface the Gates Foundation statement is less patronizing than that tired old one about ‘sustainable development,’ it has a very American ring to it: highly individualistic, with ‘improved’ lives measured in ‘additional income.’ There is no mention of justice, which would be measured by a reduction in the gap between rich and poor, elite and deprived, or the structures of capitalism that require that a few get rich while the many get poorer. In other words, it is still a matter of helping the deserving poor, not changing the system which impoverished them in the first place.

Unspoken, also, is the trust in The Market to pay a fair price for the additional rice produced, without at the same time increasing the costs to the farmer (referred to as ‘inputs’ in the industrial system). Given how few companies control the market, coming and going, why would anyone expect them to charge or pay a fair price when they don’t have to? Global traders, like Cargill, ADM and Bunge, play the market, and it is in their interest to pay as little as possible for the commodities they trade, while charging what they can get away with for the ‘inputs’ they sell.

As for Mr. Gates, he has made it very clear that what he wants – what Microsoft is about – is a monopoly in the market place, not competition. The laws and regulations that foster this, along with the political power of extreme wealth, are not to be challenged. Rather, we are to be impressed by the generosity of the mega-rich, while they reconfigure charity into development aid to reproduce the class structure of capital and ensure that radical insight into its injustice is masked by individual ‘income improvement’.

IRRI’s project will target the poorest rice farmers in Africa and South Asia, who have little or no access to irrigation and who are totally reliant on sufficient, timely rains. These farmers are regularly exposed to drought, flooding, or salinity—conditions that reduce yields, harm livelihoods, and foster hunger and malnutrition. The development and distribution of new rice varieties tolerant of these environmental stresses can help avert hunger and malnutrition while improving livelihoods for millions of farmers and their families.

With minimal access to irrigation and fertilizer, these farmers, who own small plots on marginal land, are inevitably most exposed—and most vulnerable—to poor soils, too much or too little rain, and environmental disasters.

IRRI Director General Robert S. Zeigler emphasizes that, with climate change threatening to worsen the frequency and severity of these problems, the need for insurance – in the form of stress-tolerant crops – is growing ever more urgent.

– International Rice Research Institute, Philippines, Press Release, 25/01/08

Quite apart from their prescriptions for subsistence farmers – such as drought tolerant seeds which will have to be genetically engineered, and irrigation and fertilizer which they cannot afford – one really has to ask, Is it really appropriate for one man – or one man and one woman – to decide on what will ‘reduce poverty’ while their own wealth continues its relentless increase? – B.K.


#253: February 2008 TOC
Lady Bountiful Version 2.08 - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helping small farmers pull themselves up by their bootstraps
The Indian elite is ... seceding from the people - comment from India about the growing wealth-poverty gap
Food Industry Notes - corporate mergers are old news, the interesting stuff is in the resistance to the industrial food system
Life Imitates Art - Candy bars are now full of caffeine
Dangerous Invasive Species - that would be corporations
"Corporate Control from Seed to Sewer" - NGO position at the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings
News: NAFTA is a Disaster! - rising corn and bean prices leading to a deep crisis
Fertilizer Woes - Potash Corp and friends reap record profits; Canada's Ag minister recommends farmers go cross-border shopping
Seed and Ideology - the attack on Kernel Visual Distinguishability
Bangladesh threatened with hybrid rice - TNCs rush to take advantage of the hurricane aftermath
Cowpeas - Monsanto et. al. are trying to push GM versions of this traditional crop
The Appalling Meat Industry:
   Pork Brains (processing makes workers sick)
   Recalls (slaughter of 'downer' cattle for food programs)
   Connecting Ethanol Byproduct and E. Coli (problems with cattle fed distillers' grains)
It's the model that has to change - Greenpeace and Canadian Federation of Agriculture disagree