The Cornell Alliance for Science, an organisation that operates out of Cornell University, is misnamed, argues Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice in a recent report, pointing out, It owes its allegiance not to Cornell but to its founder and main funder, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is making frantic effort to side-step the current emphasis on food security, even as promoting corporate agri-business.
The report says, the Alliance does not promote ‘science’, even though the word is part of it; rather, it promotes agribusiness, its associated technologies. The Alliance, in fact, recruits ‘Global Leadership Fellows’ whose main job is to act as paid mouthpieces for their sponsors, which is to reshape the trajectory of global governance of the food system, promoting to shape public opinion in favour of adopting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and corporate agriculture.
***The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has emerged over the past decade as an extremely influential actor in an ever-intensifying battle over the future of food and agriculture, pumping major funding into industrial agriculture while participating in powerful alliances seeking to reshape the trajectory of global governance of the food system. While some of these activities are drawing increasing scrutiny and analysis, this study examines a lesser-known aspect of BMGF’s strategy: framing the debates and shaping how issues are communicated, as well as fostering a new generation of leadership to carry forward its mission.
Funded by BMGF, the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) uses its affiliation with Cornell University to claim scientific neutrality while assiduously promoting communications aligned with agribusiness through its use of fellows, especially those from Africa. In taking a deeper look at the CAS Fellowship Program and the types of messaging it propagates, we expose the pernicious methods used by the Gates Foundation to influence the communications, narratives and policies regarding agricultural development in Africa and beyond,
The CAS Global Leadership Fellows program (is) a 12-week intensive training course on “science-based communications” held each year at Cornell bringing together 20–30 young professionals, mainly from the Global South, and particularly Africa. Upon examination of the fellows’ affiliations, multiple linkages with BMGF become apparent.
Cross checking the fellows’ affiliations with grant disbursement data provided on the BMGF website, we can see that 34% of all the African CAS fellows from 2015–2019 were associated with organizations that received funding from BMGF. Together, organizations connected to the fellows received over $775 million from BMGF between 2006 and 2019.
The strong overlap between the groups funded by BMGF for agricultural development and the CAS fellows gives additional meaning to the CAS strategy of “building a global network,” begging the question, whom does this network serve, and toward what ends? In analyzing the work put out by CAS and its fellows, a striking pattern emerges of there being a singular focus and message running throughout almost all of it: an uncritical promotion of biotechnology. A key communications strategy of CAS is to promote narratives in which biotechnology is equated with ‘science’ and critique of biotechnology is equated with being ‘anti-science.’
CAS does not appear to seriously consider science-based alternatives to biotechnology, such as agroecology, despite widespread recognition that it provides the most promising pathway to sustainable and just food systems. Instead, CAS seeks to discredit both the concept of agroecology and the movements and researchers promoting it.
What adds power to the narratives of CAS is that its messages are not coming from BMGF or from its agribusiness partners directly, but from mostly young, African voices that make up its Fellowship Program, ostensibly informed by their lived experiences and claimed scientific rigor, given the affiliation with Cornell. This matters in terms of how these messages are received by the public. CAS is nurturing an elite body of purported science experts to become regulators in institutions creating policies that facilitate the expansion of corporate biotechnology in Africa.
Through its funding for the Cornell Alliance for Science, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking to shape public opinion in favor of adopting GMOs and corporate agriculture. CAS is building a new generation of leaders to carry out BMGF’s mission of spreading corporate biotechnology across the Global South, particularly Africa. A key communications strategy of CAS is to promote narratives in which biotechnology is equated with ‘science’ and critique of biotechnology is equated with being ‘antiscience.’
Furthermore, CAS seeks to discredit both the concept of agroecology and the movements and researchers promoting it. These efforts are coming at a time at which agroecology has been receiving increasing recognition and making unprecedented advances on the global stage: from the International Forum for Agroecology at Nyéléni held in Mali in 2015, which brought together social movements throughout the world toward a common agenda for agroecology, to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) Global Dialogue on Agroecology from 2014–2018 in the form of two international and six regional symposia involving more than 1400 participants from 170 countries, to agroecology being a key item on the agenda at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security in 2019, extending into 2020.
That the attacks on agroecology by CAS are coming at the same time that there is a mounting global scientific consensus around the merits of agroecology is no coincidence. Studies have demonstrated that perceived scientific consensus is a key factor in influencing public support on a given issue and that this tends to encourage counter-efforts around “the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests.” As momentum continues to build around agroecology, its advocates can be certain that further smear campaigns and other attempts to manufacture doubt will continue. It is hoped that this report can be instructive in this light.
It is important to look at CAS not in isolation, but to understand it as part of a broader set of efforts being employed by BMGF and as part of a large web of actors and initiatives shaping the politics of food and agriculture. Among the most significant of these is a Global Food Systems Summit being planned for 2021 that could shift the power in global governance away from the relatively democratic UN Committee on World Food Security toward more closed spaces dominated by agribusiness interests, as indicated by the summit’s sponsorship by the World Economic Forum.