No development project in the sustainable-ag world generates more controversy than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations’ efforts around agriculture in Africa.

On the one hand, Gates officials say they have learned the hard lessons of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s — the one that, funded by U.S. foundation cash, brought the genius of industrial agriculture to the global south (except for Africa, where it failed).

Surveying the wreckage of the farm sector in India — site of the Green Revolution’s greatest putative success — the Gates people say they won’t promote huge irrigation projects or push agrichemicals as a panacea for Africa.

On the other hand, Gates plucked a 25-year Monsanto veteran named Rob Horsch as "as senior program officer, focusing on improving crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa," and hasn’t been exactly transparent about what precisely it’s up to over there.

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, David Reiff has published what I think might be the most evenhanded article I’ve seen on the foundation’s controversial effort.

Reiff travels to Tanzania and talks to Gates officials working on the ground to bolster domestic markets and "improve" seed genetics. The officials swear they aren’t pushing genetically modified seed technology; and one official, Joseph DeVries, insists that the green revolution that he’s pushing relies on locally adapted crops that "produced high yields without large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers that small farmers could not afford."

They strain to say the right things, but they can’t quite veer away from there-is-no-alternative rhetoric. Here’s Reiff describing his conversation with DeVries:

“The choices that confront African farmers and the world at large,” he went on, are simple and stark: “Either we will increase agricultural yields on the lands now under cultivation, or the combination of low yields and population increase will force smallholders” — small farmers — “to cut down virgin forest lands and cultivate them. There are no other realistic possibilities.”

No mention of low-tech ways of boosting yields through biodiversity and compost; no mention of local agricultural knowledge.

Reiff also gives a broad hearing to Gates’ prominent critics, including Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel, the Indian organic-agriculture pioneer Vandana Shiva, and Peter Rosset of Via Campesina.

They criticize the Foundation for its lack of democratic accountability and its ties with the very agrichemical firms that it strains to distance itself from. Reiff quotes ETC Group lamenting "a growing trend toward privatization of foreign aid, and the fusing of the private sector with governments."

I think that nails it. The public sector in Africa withdrew from agriculture — pressured by the IMF and World Bank — and U.S. food aid has for decades focused on delivering U.S.-grown surplus commodities, not rebuilding food networks. In the ensuing food crisis, there’s been a vacuum of leadership and resources, into which the Gates Foundation has stepped, with no obligation of democratic accountability.

When ag policy and foreign aid gets privatized, can we be surprised if private interests impose their agendas? Like Raj Patel, I accept that the Gates folks have the purest of motives in the Africa project. But I wonder how, without a mandate from and accountability to the people they’re trying to help — Africa’s farmers — they can possibly avoid the colossal blunders of the first green revolution.