The Gates Foundation has emerged as a kind of de facto USDA for Africa: a deep-pocketed funder with a focus on agriculture, in a continent that has seen ag-research funding plunge over the past several decades.

For a while, the Gates Foundation sought to avoid a reputation as a cheerleader for biotech “solutions” to Africa’s agriculture troubles.

Sure, our nation’s best-funded foundation hired a former Monsanto exec, Rob Horsch, as a program officer. But its official ag-development documents (see, for example, this one) brim with statements on the importance of small-scale farming–a wise idea, given that a majority of Africa’s residents rely on small-scale farming for their sustenance.

And the foundation lavished some cash–a small amount, relatively–on appropriate-tech, farmer-friendly, ecologically sound initiatives.

Then Bill Gates himself gave his blunt pro-biotech speech in October 2009–which I commented on here–at the awards ceremony of the industrial-ag-friendly World Food Prize.

And now the Gates Foundation has finally named a new director of agricultural development–a position left vacant since April, when Rajiv Shah left to take a post at USDA. (Shah is now director of USAID within the State Department–the top development position in the U.S. government). The foundation named long-time biotech exec and investor Sam Dryden to the post.

In doing so, the foundation could hardly have sent a stronger signal: In its vision, at least, Africa’s future as a prosperous continent hinges on the benevolence of patent-wielding Western biotech behemoths like Monsanto and its very few peers in the GMO-seed space. Here is how The Seattle Times describes Dryden’s background:

At Wolfensohn and Company, which was founded by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, Dryden focused on investments in alternative energies. He formerly headed Emergent Genetics, which develops and markets seeds. Emergent Genetics, the third largest cotton seed company in the U.S., was acquired by Monsanto in 2005 in a $300 million deal. [Emphasis added.]

According to his Emergent Genetics bio, Dryden stayed on with the company until June 2006, at least six months after its acquisition by Monsanto. At Wolfensohn, Dryden “focuses on private equity investments in biofuels and other alternative energies.”

GMO cotton, biofuels … this is an industrial-ag man through and through. Indeed, if his resume is any indication, he seems to fixate more on using land to produce fiber and fuel than on food for people to eat.

And his experience in the ag-biotech industry dates to its early days. From his Emergent bio:

In 1980, Sam led the spin-out of Union Carbide’s biotechnologies and related business operations and was subsequently co-founder, President and CEO of Agrigenetics Corporation.  The company grew to become one of the world’s largest seed enterprises and was acquired in 1985 — it is now part of Dow AgroSciences.  During this same period, he was also chairman of an affiliated partnership which managed and invested $60 million in proprietary plant sciences research conducted in leading universities, as well as private and public research institutions worldwide.

The bio goes on:

Following the sale of Agrigenetics, Sam founded and was President of Big Stone Inc. — a private venture investment and development company focused on the life sciences.  The firm participated in founding over a dozen companies in area such as biopesticides, novel nucleic acid-based therapeutics and diagnostic products, transgenic animals, fermentation based production of vitamins, pharmaceutical clinical trialing, environmental toxicological testing and bio therapeutics.  Sam also served as the non-executive chairman of Celgro, Inc, and independent venture of Celgene Corporation, a company focused on the development of novel, single-isomer, agricultural chemical compounds.

Whether Western biotech can really “feed the world” remains a matter of great debate. But the Gates Foundation’s position on whether GMOs are a panacea no longer need be debated.

[Update:] I just want to add, and I hope the foundation’s decision makers will think hard about that this, that Dryden (like Shah before him) seems to have zero experience working in the field with actual farmers. He is a titan of the board room, the conference hall, the offices of World Bank executives. Intentions of the decision to hire Dryden aside, the appearance is this: an attempt to “solve” Africa’s agriculture problems in a way that works for Western shareholders. What we need now, though, are solutions that work for Africa’s farmers, citizens, and broader ecology.