Food Safety, Security and Accesibility Concerns Cause Gates Foundation to Fund GMO Research

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s price index topped off at an all-time high this January, reflecting the skyrocketing global food prices and teetering stability of the market. These increases pose a severe risk to developing countries that depend upon agriculture for both subsistence farming and as the sole source of income for many communities. Developing countries’ vulnerability to extreme weather attributed to climate change, crop diseases, pests, and the characteristic isolation of these communities puts them at a disadvantage. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has teamed up with the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to jointly fund $102 million in research, development, and on the ground assistance for agricultural communities in developing countries.

“Along with health, I think agricultural productivity is one of the most basic things that can help the poor move to a more prosperous life.”

~Bill Gates, Co-chair and Trustee, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The two groups will identify projects jointly, and then the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Initiative will manage the selected projects.

The collaboration comes at a key time in agricultural history, as food prices spike forcing millions of people to go hungry or malnourished and as the economic stability of the marketplace remains questionable. Yet this venture is not simply about increasing agricultural productivity, it is about the livelihood and potential for sustainable agriculture that combines the best knowledge of current practice with ancient farming techniques. The hope is to leverage scientific research that identifies farming systems with fewer inputs and greater outputs, as well as increased access to tools, training, stable markets, and policies.

A large portion of the funds, $40 million, is designated for Cornell’s Durable Rust Resistant Wheat project. After developing a wheat strain that is resistant to stem rust, a global threat to wheat worldwide, the University has now dispersed this seed to seven countries with high food security risks. Another $3 million has been allotted for Diagnostics for All (DFA), to address dairy testing. This work is specifically designed to create an affordable diagnostic test that is accessible to small dairy farmers. Costing only a few cents, the test will check the milk quality, bovine pregnancy, and a common toxin found in grain. The results will help increase food security, food safety, and milk production.

This collaboration marks a significant advancement in funds for small-scale sustainable agriculture in developing countries. It also formally recognizes climate change and biodiversity loss’s potentially devastating impact on subsistence farming, hunger, and poverty. The Gates Foundation, contributing $70 million to this project, already has extensive agriculture programs in Africa and Southeast Asia that address soil quality, dairy productivity, microirrigation, and business training for farmers. The DFID is committed to the Millennium Development Goals through the UK Government, which have targeted to halve world poverty by 2015. This work is part of their efforts to address the issue of poverty on the ground level through accessibility to safe and nutritious food along with stable livelihoods through agriculture. The specifics, such as the number of individuals aided and projected yield increases have not been released yet.

Critics of the funding question whether the agriculture investments in hybridized crops and seeds from the developed world further push developing countries toward dependency on developed nations. Some seed saving advocates believe that investments in genetically modified crops are short-sighted and insufficient in addressing the ecological system in its entirety, costing more money in the long-term to “solve.” By manipulating natural systems, critics fear that humans have created a never-ending technological rat race. For example, insects have relatively short life cycles. Spraying pesticides to kill them or developing GMO plants that kill them after ingestion solves the immediate pest problem. Yet, due to a short lifecycle, insects are able build up resistance quickly, creating the need for harsher chemicals, and so the cycle continues. In this case the details about GMO crops as part of the solution have not been fully disclosed outside of the wheat seeds.

Proponents of GMO crops believe the seeds are not only technological wonders, but necessary components of properly addressing rising rates of hunger and poverty. This difference is often attributed to different worldviews. The upstream approach is to work with the natural system to understand limits and opportunities based on the natural system today and in the future. Others argue that an immediate need that requires an immediate solution on a large-scale developed by humans (GMO advocates).

Instead of pitting these two opinions against one another, the approach taken by The Gates Foundation has leveraged benefits of both kinds of thinking. This has lead to the creation of an integrative approach that values the urgency to address the issue, and the necessity to lay the foundation for future sustainability and success.  As the program evolves, it will be interesting to see what types of solutions the collaboration will choose to invest in to address the pressing issue of agricultural instability and world hunger.

Tiffany Finley started her sustainability journey while camping in the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota. Since then she has been dedicated to reconciling the industrial and the natural world views to create a hybridized mode of development toward sustainability. Majoring in Environmental Management in the US and then obtaining a Master's of Science in Strategic Leadership toward Sustainability in Sweden, she takes an analytical view based on science. She works with non-profits, small to medium businesses, and government organizations to strategize for sustainability in their respective sectors. Honored to join the writing cast at Triple Pundit, she looks forward to covering a wide range of sustainability news.