When Bill Gates speaks, the world tends to listen. The second-richest man on the planet is treated like a god when he opens his mouth. He’s still chairman of Microsoft. The billions of dollars of donations he has made through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have captured the attention of the World Health Organization and set the agenda for vaccine development and inoculation over the past decade. Now, through sheer wealth-driven clout, his plan to reduce world hunger has found a rapt audience in the United Nations’ food agencies.
Gates descended on Rome, home of three UN food agencies, in February like a rumpled angel. In a speech at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (disclosure: my wife is an employee), and at a related media event, two themes emerged: technology and big business.
His talk was peppered with phrases and references to “yield,” “global productivity target” and “digital agriculture.” He mentioned some of the biggest food processing corporations, among them Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and seemed enthusiastic about their potential role in the food development chain. “I’m a huge believer in the private sector and drawing them in,” he told the dazzled crowd.
But I was left wondering whether Gates’s agenda would contribute to the public good or the good of big business. Philanthrocapitalism, as it has been dubbed, has a dark side. Relying on genetically modified (GM) crops and chemicals to push up output per acre may help Monsanto (which was one of the stocks in the Gates Foundation’s investment portfolio), Syngenta and other tech-driven food biggies, but won’t necessarily support those who need the most help—poor smallholder farmers and underdeveloped countries. Making them part of Big Ag’s global supply chain might not help either.
The Gates Foundation, founded in 1994, is the largest philanthropic foundation in the world, thanks to the lavish contribution of Berkshire Hathaway shares via Warren Buffett. So far, the foundation has committed $26.2 billion (all currency in U.S. dollars) of grants, about half of which goes toward health initiatives such as fighting malaria and other infectious diseases. The foundation’s “global development” category, which is focused on agriculture, is coming on strong. In Rome, Gates said that the foundation would devote another $200 million to agriculture, much of it toward developing vaccines for livestock and 34 varieties of drought-tolerant maize. The amount raises his grants to smallholder farmers to almost $2 billion.
You can see where this is going. To Gates, technology—and lots of it—is the solution, hardly a surprise coming from the man who gave the world Windows (for better or worse). In the ag world, of course, technology often means GM crops, which allegedly boost yields, all the better to feed the extra two billion people who are to be squeezed onto the planet by 2050.
The problem is that there is ample evidence that the yield gains GM seeds produce are somewhere between overblown and negligible in many cases, and that GM foods have unknown effects on human and animal health because they haven’t been subjected to long-term independent studies.
Joining the supply chain for Big Ag sounds like another good idea to Gates, because producing cash crops for reliable, big buyers can provide a steady income for farmers. But this concept, too, has many downsides. Smallholder farmers in developing countries who supply offshore corporations won’t necessarily grow the diversity of crops needed by local populations. And farmers who depend on one crop are more vulnerable to financial ruin if a new disease, fungus or pest hits. Many small farms also don’t earn enough income to pay for GM seeds and specialized crop-protection goop to go with those seeds.
Gates probably doesn’t want to hear this, but there are often cheap, low-tech ways to boost yields and farm income in poor countries, especially Africa. The UN says that about one-third of the food produced in the world gets wasted. Much of it in poor countries never leaves the farm because it gets spoiled or fails to make it to market due to lack of basic infrastructure such as roads and warehouses.
Modest increases in the use of irrigation in Africa could boost output by as much as 50%, according to research groups such as the International Food Policy Research Institute. Only about 6% of the cultivated land is irrigated, compared with 37% in Asia. Even a little more fertilizer could work wonders. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use an average of 13 kilos of fertilizer per hectare, compared with 190 kilos in East Asia and the Pacific.
Big Ag, including the Monsantos of the world, would have you believe that GM foods, and all the chemicals and fertilizers that go with them, are the solution to world hunger. It’s an argument that should be challenged far more energetically than it is. Sadly, it looks like Gates, with all his crushing power, wealth and influence, is oiling this propaganda machine.