Just Food Project: Food Systems Governance

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This module is a starting point for exploring food systems governance. It focuses on the growing role of philanthropic organizations in international agricultural development. The governance of food systems occurs through a complex and fluid series of interactions between various actors such as state governments, philanthropic foundations, research institutes, multinational corporations, and non-governmental organizations.[1] This module explores philanthrocapitalism as a way to explore global agricultural development. A focus on the role of philanthrocapitalism highlights certain global trends:

  • Deferral of responsibility for agriculture development from governments to philanthropic organizations,
  • Increased role of financial markets in the agricultural sector,
  • Asymmetrical power relations between those who provide aid and those who receive it.

Key Themes: Food Governance; Policy & Planning; Economic Systems; Built Food Environment; Food Security; Diet, Nutrition & Human Health; Class

Learning Outcomes

  1. Describe the role of philanthropic foundations in international agricultural development and food systems governance.
  2. Identify how unequal power relations enacted in international agricultural development maintains hegemonies and cycles of dependency in food systems at local, national, and international scales.
  3. Explore the impacts of different governance and development approaches employed in international agricultural development.


Philanthropic Foundations

Philanthropic foundations are powerful actors in the governance of international development, with increasing influence over development agendas since the 1980s due to the sheer amount of capital they invest in these projects.[2] While, in the United States, philanthropic foundations can be either private foundations or public charities, this module focuses on private foundations.[3] For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropic foundation in the world, has contributed over two billion USD in African agricultural development[4] and provides more funding for international development than all major donor countries combined.[2] Increasingly, philanthropic foundations leverage their funding to influence donor aid and agricultural policy in recipient countries.[5][6] Philanthropists invest in health, education, and agriculture development initiatives at national and global scales. Philanthropy is often seen as virtuous wealthy individuals generously donating their riches for the betterment of all humankind. However, critics argue that philanthropists trade financial capital for social capital, and use their influence to strengthen the corporate regimes that made them rich.[7]

Philanthropy and the Green Revolution

The current practice of philanthropic foundations investing in agriculture for poverty alleviation began in the 1950s when the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, two large philanthropic foundations, were key funders in Mexico of what is known as the Green Revolution.[8] The 1950s saw the spread of concern related to “Malthusian” famines (famines that are thought to have been brought on by population growth and lack of agricultural production, despite evidence proving otherwise) in developing countries in Asia. These famines perpetuated the false claim that there were not enough resources to feed growing populations.[9][10] Amidst these food crises, the Cold War was waged and fears of communism were rampant. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations began supporting research initiatives to help improve agricultural technology and productivity.[8]  They partnered with the United States government to help stop the spread of communism, as some believed that hungry and impoverished people were more susceptible to the ideology.[8] Green Revolution technologies emerged to improve agricultural productivity in developing countries in the early 1960s.[10]

The Green Revolution refers to the period of time where high yield varieties of wheat, maize, and rice were researched and brought to the Philippines, Mexico, and India as a form of development aid.[11] These plant varieties rely on the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and industrial agricultural techniques, leading many regions to experience an increase in agricultural output during this period. This facilitated the transformation of these agrarian economies from subsistence to commercial economies, linked to the global system of trade.[11] The transition from subsistence to commodity-based economies is considered by philanthropists and their supporters to be essential in lifting rural communities out of poverty. However, the process of economic transformation often disrupts traditional foodways and locks smallholder farmers in a cycle of dependency on international seed and agrochemical companies and capitalist production, which has been shown to have resulted in negative environmental, economic and social outcomes.[12]

Green Revolution technology in most regions was made more readily available to specific groups, particularly male landowners, displacing women's agricultural roles in many regions and facilitating the dispossession of land from smallholder farmers.[8][13] Globally, the increase in industrial agriculture associated with the Green Revolution has contributed significantly to nutrient loading in water systems, depletion of groundwater, salinization and nutrient depletion in soils, the abandonment of other cropping practices, loss of local and traditional knowledge, and the reduction of agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity of rural communities.[13] However, the use of new varieties and fertilizers improved farm productivity, making some small farmers less poor and improving nutrition outcomes.[14] This contributed to the doubling of total food production in the world from 1960 to 1985.[8] The Green Revolution also contributed to land intensification due to increased productivity per area of land potentially saving between 18 to 27 million hectares from being brought into agricultural production (based on a simulation of the effects of the Green Revolution).[15][16]

In some countries, the Green Revolution resulted in the deepening of class, gender, and regional inequalities through the expansion of liberalized global trade in food and strengthened the role of the private sector in the food system.[17][1] The effects of the Green Revolution were uneven. Overall consumption, in terms of calories, increased while malnutrition and access to food remained key problems due to market and policy factors[18]. For instance, policies that promoted staple crop production also led to the crowding out of non-staple crops that had provided valuable micronutrients.[19]

Global Development and Food Systems

Global development and philanthropic objectives are replete with the belief that ‘underdeveloped’ regions should be ‘developed’ to ‘catch up’ to industrial nations, influenced by modernization theory.[20] These ideas shape the kinds of policies and interventions championed by philanthropic foundations as being effective methods for providing aid to impoverished communities. Modernization theory problematically places the blame for poverty on the practices of the impoverished and assumes that impoverished people have to change themselves into an imposed ideal to lift themselves from poverty.[20]

Trends in international agricultural development reflect a shift from state-led development strategies to market-led approaches.[11] This shift has been propelled by the growth in neoliberalism and globalization, and the deterioration of state powers and increased power of the private and non-profit sectors, allowing for the growth in influence of philanthropic foundations.[11] State interventions, while sometimes problematic and less efficient, are often supposed to be accountable to their citizens in democratic societies. In contrast, philanthropic foundations are free to choose their partners, the timing of their projects, the geographic area they operate in, their target groups, and the methodologies they employ in their interventions.[2] This means that philanthropic foundations are free to spend their money changing the world around them as they see fit, and are not held accountable for the consequences of those changes in the same way that the state is.[21] Developing countries are increasingly forced to work with philanthrocapitalists, who run philanthropic foundations with large amounts of resources, lobbying power, and political clout, as they cannot risk working against them.[22]  Particularly, in Africa, it can be argued that many African nations are more accountable to external parties than to their citizens, which increases the power of philanthropic foundations.[23]

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

After the large amounts of investment in the 1960s and 1970s into Green Revolution technology, there was a decline in aid for agricultural development, especially in Africa where the advances associated with the new technology were less prevalent.[14][24] In the global food crisis of 2008, the World Bank put out a call for increased agricultural aid in Africa.[25] The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (informally referred to as the Gates Foundation or BMGF) sought to answer this call, partnering with CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and other donors, expediting investment into agriculture. The Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic foundation in the world today, contributing more financial resources to international development projects than most national governments.[2] Since their Agricultural Development Program began in 2006, they have invested over five billion USD to agricultural development around the world—mostly in Africa.[26] Between 2009 and 2011, the BMGF spent nearly USD 500 million on African agricultural development.[4] While market-led approaches were already prevalent in global development in the 1980s and 1990s, this approach was emphasized again more recently by the Gates Foundation in the African agricultural context.[11] Not only does the Gates Foundation control resources through funding projects in the agricultural sector in Africa, the Foundation also has significant sway in local policy.[11] Supporters of the foundation’s work consider it important for food security in the region and globally, as the Gates Foundation has provided funding to a sector that has not received much resources from international donors in the past.[26] This perspective is the dominant one in the international agricultural development community. However, critics accuse the Gates Foundation of being overly focused on high-tech, high-cost inputs for farmers and ‘silver bullet’ solutions to rural poverty.[26][27] Some critics and academics argue that either the Gates Foundation is destined to repeat the mistakes of the Green Revolution, or it is actively seeking to spread capitalist, industrial agriculture across the globe to strengthen the corporate food regime dominated by the multinational corporations the Foundation often partners with.[26]

A “New Green Revolution” in Africa?

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is an organization that was created in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. Its purpose is to “fulfil the vision that Africa can feed itself and the world - transforming agriculture from a solitary struggle to survive to a business that thrives.”[28] To achieve this, AGRA partners with national governments, international NGOs, agrochemical companies, and philanthropic foundations.[29] They promote the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnology to increase agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa.[13] AGRA’s earliest and most common intervention is to establish extensive agro-dealer networks in the countries they invest in to facilitate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.[13] These actions have been criticized as interventions which benefit large multinational agrochemical companies over smallholder farmers, creating farmer dependencies on high-cost agricultural inputs, and opening the door to genetic engineering and patenting of African cultivars.[13]

AGRA’s goal, according to its critics and supporters alike, is to convert African smallholder farmers into entrepreneurial-minded farm enterprises that will invest both materially and ideologically in capitalist speculation.[20] Supporters claim that commodification of African farms will lead to increased buying power and the diversification of rural economies in sub-Saharan Africa.[26] Critics argue the Gates Foundation and AGRA are more invested in ‘fixing’ rural Africans, whose lifeways are seen as backward and unproductive, than they are in actually addressing the material and social problems rural Africans are challenged with daily.[26] Many point to the increased inequalities and environmental degradation that resulted from the original Green Revolution as a point of caution for the ‘new’ Green Revolution being sought by AGRA and its affiliates.[13]

Alternatives to the Green Revolution

Despite philanthropic interest in developing commercial and technological solutions to rural African poverty, local agro-ecological solutions exist that have been proven to be both successful and appealing to African farmers.[11] For example, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is focused on developing a genetically-engineered banana cultivar high in vitamin A as a means to address micronutrient deficiencies in Uganda, there exist local cultivars high in vitamin A that are readily available for planting.[30] These local cultivars, already displaced as a result of past disruptions to indigenous Ugandan food systems, are at risk of becoming further displaced by the banana cultivars in development using Gates Foundation funding. Organizations such as the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and the African Centre for Biosafety are actively campaigning against the types of interventions favoured by AGRA, arguing that they lead to the genetic theft of Africa’s agrobiodiversity, the privatization of land and natural resources, and the diminishing of African smallholder farmers sovereignty over land, resources, and food systems.[31]

African smallholder farmers, peasant farm organizations, and civil society groups are increasingly calling for greater transparency and accountability from AGRA, including greater public engagement, debate, and, ultimately, the democratization of development of Africa’s food systems.[1] Critics of a ‘new’ Green Revolution for Africa cite the need for nutritional education, health and sanitation infrastructure improvements, maintenance of crop diversity, social programs to address gender inequalities, and land reform to ensure equitable development in sub-Saharan Africa.[13]

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa engages in strategies such as networking and capacity building, research, policy advocacy, and communication to gesture towards a transition to agroecological solutions for smallholder farmers.[32] Their theory of change involves building a broad-based food sovereignty movement and joining with other international food movement actors such as La Via Campesina. However, AFSA, like most organizations involved in the food sovereignty movement, lack the financial resources that are available to organizations such as AGRA, which limits their capacity to offer practical alternatives to Green Revolution technologies for farmers.[33] Proponents of agroecological solutions, such as AFSA, oppose Green Revolution solutions because they fear these technologies will lead to environmental degradation, increased inequality, and the theft of African genetic resources. On the other hand, Green Revolution proponents consider agroecological solutions inadequate to meet or exceed the productivity of conventional agriculture to avoid trapping smallholder farmers in a cycle of poverty.[34] While these ideologies may be diametrically opposed, the reality for smallholder African farmers is more nuanced. Smallholder farmers in Mozambique have found some successes in utilizing Green Revolution technologies and agroecological techniques in complementary ways.[33] The tensions between agroecological proponents and Green Revolution supporters may be an unnecessary hindrance to finding practical solutions for Africa’s smallholder farmers. As academics and outsiders, it is important to place community needs and individual agency as paramount in any intervention.

Key Terms

  • Development: The planned attempts to transform the standard of living among the poorer populations of a country or region, generally by outside forces. Characterized as a complex series of interventions directed from richer countries to poorer countries in the form of aid. A modernization project with historical roots in the Cold War that seeks to narrow the socioeconomic gap between different parts of the world by bringing into effect the social and cultural changes thought necessary to close the gap and stabilize countries politically.[35]
  • International Agricultural Development: Agricultural development takes the principles of global development and applies them to the agricultural sector. Agricultural development focuses on improving agricultural productivity to in turn support a country’s economic growth, relieve poverty, and improve food security.[1] 
  • Developing Countries: The distinction of 'developing country' is based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP); those with lower GDPs and less developed economies are considered developing, and those with more are considered developed countries.[36] Developed economies, as defined by the UN, include countries in the G7 and Western, whereas other economies are classified as either in transition or developing.[37]
  • Green Revolution: The diffusion of new high yield varieties of crops such as rice and wheat with their associated agricultural technologies from the Global North to the Global South beginning in the 1950s. The Green Revolution increased agricultural productivity and the right to food in many developing nations but is associated with the disruption of traditional farming economies and the environmental degradation.[14][35] The Green Revolution is also tied to the global corporate food regime, as one of the outcomes of the revolution was to increase productivity leading to increased exports, entrenching global supply chains.[1]
  • Food systems governance: The world food price crisis of 2007/2008 and 2010, where food prices skyrocketed, spurred calls to investigate the structural components of the food system that has led to such stark failures in food access and availability.[38] As outlined by Hospes et al., food systems governance encompasses conceptualizations of the food system (such as components and the interconnectedness between different components and systems) as well as different governance pieces (actors, authorities, laws, policies, and different scales).[38]
  • Modernity: A historical period and associated experience connected to the spread of capitalism and characterized by perpetual change and innovation.[35] Modernity is a self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics; this definition serves to distinguish one’s self as being organizationally or intellectually advanced compared to a previous generation. Modernity is associated with individual subjectivity, scientific explanation and rationalization, a decline in emphasis on religious worldviews, the emergence of bureaucracy, rapid urbanization, the rise of nation-states, and accelerated financial exchange and communication.[39]
  • Modernization Theory: An ideological notion that poorer countries and regions need to transition from traditional societies to modernist industrial societies through technological, social, and cultural change.[13]
  • Philanthropy: Charitable giving to causes on a large scale, carried out by wealthy individuals seeking to improve human welfare.[40] Philanthropy’s scale and scope distinguish it from other charitable giving; philanthropists invest in humanitarian objectives in ways that are often intended to benefit many people in universalizing ways.
  • Philanthrocapitalism: The application of free-market principles to philanthropic investing under the belief that market ideals will lead to better outcomes for philanthropy’s beneficiaries (also known as capitalist philanthropy).[7][41] Philanthrocapitalism encompasses some of the practices and approaches used by “mega” foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation that are funded through the wealth of donors and lack public accountability.[41][42] Philanthrocapitalism aims to harness wealth to improve public good. However, critics of the practice and theory highlight that it can lead to a systemic shift to increased corporate control in Africa’s public agricultural sector.[43]
  • Philanthropic Foundation: A non-profit organization that donates money to other organizations or funds their own activities; In the United States, this includes both private foundations that are usually funded by an individual or corporation as well as public charities which raise funds from the general public.[44] These foundations are generally created with the aim of supporting the social good and provide funds for charity, education, research and other programs.[44]
  • White Supremacy: A historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege of those who are of closer proximity to whiteness.[45] This concept can specifically manifest in White Saviourism, which is when white-led organizations seek to solve problems in predominantly non-white countries; see Kothari’s article Thinking about “race” in development for an in-depth analysis on the silences of race in development discourse.

Activity Outline

Facilitator Note: These activities are provided as guidance for instructors and facilitators to mix and match as they seek to fulfil the learning outcomes. Times given are an estimate and facilitators should use their best judgement as to when to move things along and when to tease out certain topics based on their own learning goals.

Activity Estimated Time Associated Learning Outcomes Activity Notes
Pre-Activity: Group Guidelines 30 min Define your role as facilitator and clarify the group’s expectations of you and each other, as well as foster a safe, respectful, and effective learning environment for participants
Activity 1: Reading Discussion 45 min 1. Describe the role of philanthropic foundations in international agricultural development and food systems governance.

2. Identify how unequal power relations enacted in international agricultural development maintains hegemonies and cycles of dependency in food systems at local, national, and international scales.

3. Explore the impacts of different governance and development approaches employed in international agricultural development.

This activity provides background reading and sample discussion activity to go through the readings.

Choose one reading for each learning outcome. Assign the readings before class and offer prompts to encourage in-class discussions. Conduct an in-class discussion to debrief the reading and background material.

Activity 2: ‘Controversial’ Topic Response Take-home assignment or 45 min in class 1. Describe the role of philanthropic foundations in international agricultural development and food systems governance.
 Complete as an in-class written assignment or take-home written assignment.
Activity 3: Power Mapping 45-70 min 2. Identify how unequal power relations enacted in international agricultural development maintains hegemonies and cycles of dependency in food systems at local, national, and international scales.
 Map concepts of power onto agricultural development, specifically looking at AGRA. If learners are already familiar with different types of power, the activity can be adapted and shortened.
Activity 4: Debate 50-60 min 2.   Identify how unequal power relations enacted in international agricultural development maintains hegemonies and cycles of dependency in food systems at local, national, and international scales.

3. Explore the impacts of different governance and development approaches employed in international agricultural development.

This activity requires some pre-class preparation. Please provide the pre-instructions to participants with sufficient time for them to prepare for the activity. Some of the topics discussed may be sensitive for some participants, refer to the Facilitator Guide with particular attention to the section on microaggressions to ensure a respectful tone is carried out throughout the debate.


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