Bill Gates calls for new green revolution in agriculture
More than 50 years ago, U.S. philanthropy funded the first "Green Revolution" to grow more food for the world, but with a billion people going hungry today, the job is hardly complete. Now Bill Gates, the world's richest philanthropist, is backing a new green revolution, and telling the world it should be "greener than the first."
Seattle Times business reporter
Numbers show the magnitude of the global hunger problem
• People who don't have enough to eat: 1.02 billion.
• Undernourished people increased by 75 million in 2007, by 40 million in 2008.
• People in developing countries who are hungry: 907 million.
• More than 60 percent of those chronically hungry are women.
• About 65 percent of the world's hungry live in India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.
• Every six seconds a child dies as a result of hunger or related causes.
More than 50 years ago, U.S. philanthropy funded the first "Green Revolution" to grow more food for the world, but with a billion people going hungry today, the job is hardly complete.
Now the world's richest philanthropist is backing a new green revolution, and telling the world it should be "greener than the first."
On Thursday, Bill Gates is outlining his own vision in his first major address on agriculture, calling on governments, researchers, environmentalists and others to "set aside old divisions and join forces" to help millions of farmers.
Speaking at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, Gates is also announcing a $120 million package of agriculture-related grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to nine institutions around the world.
The Gates Foundation has infused much-needed energy and $1.4 billion of funding into agricultural development in Africa and South Asia over the past three years. But its approach has drawn heated criticism from those who say it is too heavily focused on technology solutions and higher yields, a path that risks repeating the mistakes of the original Green Revolution.
Gates will argue that the "ideological wedge" between groups who disregard environmental concerns and groups who discount productivity gains could thwart major breakthroughs that are within reach.
"It's a false choice, and it's dangerous for the field," Gates said in advance excerpts from the speech. "It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can't have both."
Gates will share the stage with the 2009 World Food Prize laureate, Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian sorghum researcher honored for his work to develop hybrids resistant to drought.
The gathering, focused on "Food, Agriculture & National Security in a Globalized World," comes at a time when the food crisis and economic slowdown have pushed as many as 100 million more people into poverty, and when climate change threatens future progress.
The G-20 group of leading nations has pledged $22 billion to help solve global hunger by supporting small farmers in the developing world.
The Gates Foundation made its initial foray into agriculture three years ago when it partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Based in Kenya, AGRA aims to increase productivity of small farms in the poorest region of the world, building on work the Rockefeller Foundation began in the 1940s that created the first so-called Green Revolution.
That effort boosted yields of wheat and rice in Latin America and Asia and relieved widespread famine. But it also polluted some ecosystems with fertilizers and pesticides and drained rivers and wetlands for irrigation.
Gates will also touch on those mistakes, saying the current effort "must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment."
Critics of his foundation have urged Gates to address the underlying roots of poverty, rather than just focusing on technological fixes for specific problems.
In Africa, "there are a lot of holes in the whole system, and I think the Gates Foundation would have done well taking a broader view," said Hans Herren, a Swiss scientist who won the World Food Prize in 1995 and is now president of the Millennium Institute. "They needed to take a systematic look and talk to more stakeholders on the ground before investing a lot of money."
Some, including Herren, argue hunger today is not caused by a shortage of food in the world but by unequal distribution of resources and access to markets.
The foundation is taking a somewhat broad approach with the current grants, which include $15 million to AGRA to develop policies that would improve farmer productivity, expand markets for crops and strengthen property rights; $12 million to help farmers supply local school-feeding programs; $10 million for a farmer radio network; $9.7 million to help rural families in India by mobilizing 120,000 women and training them in land and water management; and $4.7 million to the Grameen Foundation to build a system for communities in Uganda to use mobile devices to exchange agricultural information.
Some activists have expressed concern over the foundation's funding for development of new genetically engineered seeds. Gates is responding that the foundation isn't an advocate of any particular scientific method.
The largest grant, $21.25 million to the International Potato Center, will fund a project to produce high-yielding varieties of sweet potato for sub-Saharan Africa, some of which will go toward biotechnology to create varieties resistant to pests.
The foundation is also giving $10.4 million to an effort to create an African biosafety network to develop regulatory systems for the use of biotechnology in agriculture.
Gates will pay tribute to Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning plant scientist who died in September. Known as the father of the Green Revolution, Borlaug is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives through his pioneering work in agricultural productivity.
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com
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