Last week, Bill Gates gave a speech in Rome, calling on the UN to set a target for agricultural productivity growth.
Gates was somewhat critical of agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program, calling their efforts poorly coordinated with insufficient focus on measuring results.
Gates was, in effect, calling for the agencies to adapt a more corporate-like management style with a stronger focus on productivity. This obviously worked quite well for Microsoft, making Mr. Gates the richest man in the world in the process, but is more productivity the right answer for feeding the world’s hungry?
In a world where farmers are paid not to plant crops in order to keep prices high, is productivity really the answer?
Many authorities on the subject don’t seem to think so. Deborah Rich, who writes about food for the San Francisco Chronicle, says that “hunger and malnutrition result from poverty and not from a lack of food in the world.”
Glenn Ashton, a South African agricultural consultant says that Gates’ “technocratic ideology runs counter to the best informed science.” He says in a Seattle Times Op-Ed that the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) “suggests that rather than pursuing industrial farming models, ‘agro-ecological’ methods provide the most viable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change.” Their call for a multi-functional approach takes a variety of economic, social, and environmental factors into consideration.
Bill Gates ran one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world. From his office in Seattle, he provided millions upon millions of copies of the Windows and Office software to people all over the globe.
But despite the grandiose wishes of many captains of industry who tend to favor one-size-fits-all mass-produced solutions, agriculture is a decidedly local phenomenon. Plant varieties that evolved over millennia cannot simply be plowed under in favor of some test tube variety that was cooked up in a lab thousands of miles away with the same results. Tons of expensive fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides can help make up some of the difference, but at what cost?
In Burkhard Bilger’s New Yorker piece, The Great Oasis about the great wall of trees being proposed to slow down the spreading Sahara, he describes how early farmers had learned to plant their crops in the partial shade of trees to cut back the scorching rays of the Sahel sun. But when the European colonizers came, they “taught” the natives how to farm like they did back home, cutting down all the trees and leaving all the fields exposed to the withering heat. This, of course did not work so well, but rather than go back to what once worked, they went “forward” to chemicals, machinery, and now finally to genetically modified (GM) seeds. The good news, as Bilger reports, is that trees are being “rediscovered” at last, not as a solution to desertification as the international agencies were suggesting, but rather, in areas like Burkina Faso and Niger, as a solution to agriculture.
As to the question of GMOs, Ashton writes, “GM crops generally have not increased yields over the long run, despite their increased costs and dependence on agricultural chemicals, as highlighted in the 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists report, Failure to Yield.” More recently, UCS gave Monsanto an F in sustainability, citing a laundry list of counter-productive behaviors that are clearly rooted in narrow self-interest.
Of course, GMOs, a technological fix, appeal to a technologist like Gates, which would be fine if it worked, but it does not. In most cases, GMOs do not improve long term productivity, and they introduce a host of other problems such as resistant strains of weeds, insects and bacteria, and wide-ranging potential health impacts that have not been adequately studied, largely due to pressure exerted by the company on would-be researchers.
In Dan Charles’ history of Monsanto’s biotech program, Lords of the Harvest, he describes how early gene-splicers saw themselves as the Microsoft for farmers, bundling their intellectual property with seeds, much as Microsoft bundles their operating systems with computers. Charles argues that there is no way to tell if GMO foods are safe because there is no way to tell that traditional foods are safe, except for years and years of experience. Unfortunately, if the answer for GMO foods turns out to be “No,” which some people, like Jeffrey Smith already believe is the case, given how widely they have already been distributed, it is going to be too late to avoid a major health catastrophe, and perhaps an environmental one as well.
Bill Gates is a very smart man. And he has made a strong humanitarian commitment. At the meeting in Rome, he pledged another $200 million to help the cause of hunger, bringing his total contribution up to $2 billion in this area alone. In the world of computers, Gates defined the system in which other companies wrote software. In the world of hunger and poverty, the system comes predefined and it is very large and complex. This is where a little humility might be in order. People go hungry for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with productivity. As Doug Saunders points out in his recent book Arrival City, agriculture in China falls far short of its potential, “because the land remains a fractured mess of non-commercial farms that serve social rather than nutritional or commercial needs.” For this reason, a more systemic approach, like the one being pursued by IAASTD, might stand a better chance of success in the long run.
[Image credit: Gates Foundation: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
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