Billionaire Gates says technology and partnerships, not ideology, is needed to end hunger
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, considered the world's richest man and now one of the top philanthropists in the battle against hunger, called for a practical approach when he spoke to a packed hotel ballroom at the World Food Prize meeting in Des Moines, Iowa Thursday.
When he and his wife formed the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, they were guided by their belief "that all lives have equal value," Gates said at the Borlaug Dialogue, named after the founder of the World Food Prize, Norman Borlaug.
They learned that three-fourths of the world's poorest people are small farmers. And, that Africa is the only place on Earth where per capita yields of cereal crops haven't changed for the last 25 years.
"The world food crisis has forced hunger high on the agenda," Gates said, with nongovernmental organizations and developed countries working with African heads of state.
"This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two," Gates said.
One side supports a technological approach that increases productivity while the other focuses on an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.
"Productivity or sustainability. They say you have to choose. I believe it's a false choice," Gates said.
Gates said his foundation supports the goal of sustainability.
"The Green Revolution must be guided by small holder farmers adapted to local circumstances and sustainable for the economy and the environment," he said.
The Gates Foundation works with local farmers' groups and is one of the largest funders of sustainable farming practices such as no-till farming, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and biological nitrogen fixation.
But some "insist on an ideal vision of the environment -- divorced from people and their circumstances," he said. "They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into Sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it, or what the farmers themselves might want."
Increased productivity is needed in the poorest places where population is outstripping production and where climate change will make farming even more challenging.
"Maize and rice that can tolerate drought and flooding are crucial for increasing yields in hostile weather," he said. "But we also need to play defense against disease -- which can wipe out a crop no matter what the weather."
For decades, researchers have tried to develop a useful type of rice that can survive flooding. Now, thanks to marker-assisted selection, a breeding technique associated with biotechnology, farmers in Bangladesh are testing a rice variety that can survive under water for two weeks.
Gates said it will take much more to combat hunger than technological advances in seed. That's why his foundation also works on the entire value chain of food production. Farmers need new tools and training, he said, and access to markets to sell surplus. And they need strong organizations to represent their interests.