Gates speaks

The Annual Newsletter of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is online. Page 3 deals with agriculture. The emphasis is clear:

New seeds and other inputs like fertilizer allow a farmer to increase her farm’s output significantly, instead of just growing enough food to subsist.

A big reason [for the Green Revolution’s failure there] is that African countries have widely varying climate conditions, and there hasn’t been the same investment in creating the seeds that fit those conditions.

Since I grew up as a city boy and didn’t know anything about farming, I have been on a steep learning curve to understand things like fertilizer, drip irrigation, plant breeding, and which crops are best for which conditions.

Our optimism about technology is a fundamental part of the foundation’s approach. … Technology is also a personal passion of Melinda’s and mine. So we try to point scientific research toward the problems of the poor, like agriculture.

But as Tom Philpott over at Gristmill points out:

The document never considers the complex history of agriculture in Africa; nor does it mull the social and ecological effects of industrial-style agriculture in the West and India. Are we still so enamored of our food system that we feel compelled to export it to Africa?

A more robust vision for that continent’s food future is laid out by the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development and U.N. Environmental Program. Called “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” [PDF], the report emerged in 2008 with the support of more than a dozen civil-society organizations throughout Africa.

The report concludes that organic and near-organic agriculture is ideally suited for millions of marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa — and build food security and soil fertility in unison.

Making better use of agricultural biodiversity and other solutions that do not involve what the Gates’ think of as technology is, I think, an even more exciting challenge that just trying to duplicate the Green Revolution again for Africa. And if Africa’s “widely varying climate conditions” were the problem (to say nothing of widely varying soils), how exactly will new seeds and fertilizers address that problem?

Gates also makes much of climate change, whose “negative effects will fall almost entirely on the poor, even though they did not cause the problem”. Does he really think he can breed, from scratch, fast enough to keep up? Or would he do better to devote at least some resources to making more and better use of existing agrobiodiversity in ways that can deliver the improved stability and size of harvests he says he wants?

5 Replies to “Gates speaks”

  1. Er … why, exactly? Because it offers a radically different view from ours? Or because it supports our view? Or something else? I mean, I read it when it was first published. Why, in your view, should I reread it now?

  2. A big reason [for the Green Revolution’s failure there] is that African countries have widely varying climate conditions, and there hasn’t been the same investment in creating the seeds that fit those conditions.

    Has anyone ever quantified how geo-diverse Africa is? And compared it with, say, Latin America or Asia?

  3. I did try, last year, to look at the number of different anthropogenic biomes, using a KML file in Google Earth. My impression was that there were more per unit area in sub-Saharan Africa than in India.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the rigorous use of GIS to give a less impressionistic answer, but I imagine it would be easy. (That proves how little I know about GIS).

    The best I could come with to express my impression was this:

    Sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture is different. There is great heterogeneity among agricultural ecosystems, with abrupt changes over relatively small distances. Almost all agriculture — 96% by one estimate — is rain-fed, with little scope for large irrigation schemes. Soils are fragile and often of poor quality, subject to erosion and exhaustion. The sheer number of crops on which people depend for their staple diet — among them millets, sorghum, maize, rice, wheat, teff, bananas and plantains, cassava and yam — stands in distinction to Asia reliance on rice and wheat. Finally, associated with, and a product of, the environmental and agricultural diversity, there is a diversity of cultures with, among rural households in particular, differing activities, access to markets, assets, wealth and power. Thus Africa’s socio-cultural diversity adds complexity to biological and physical diversity, and requires a diversity of approaches to agricultural development.

  4. Part of the reason why I asked the question was that as good (web)geographers we should be suspicious of “environmental determinism”, be it Ellen Semple’s, Jared Diamond’s, or Bill Gates’s.

    The physical environment isn’t everything. Diversity in itself is often not a designed response to challenges, but an “emergent property” of farming strategies and constraints.

    Intercropping in Africa, for instance, is not about achieving established goals or following a design. When plants die during the growing season, farmers simply fill the gaps in their fields with whatever seed they have at that moment. When the scientist comes along, he sees a snapshot of that process and may start philosophizing about all the benefits of intercropping, symbiosis and all. But that is not how the diversity originates. It’s really about gap-filling.

    The same effect may occur when we say that Africa needs “diverse” approaches. The diversity we see is not “designed” and does not in itself fulfill a need. Not the diversity itself, but the constant stream of creativity that generates it should be the focus of agro-development work.

    So even if we quantify Africa’s geo-diversity and find out Bill Gates is right, it would still not be clear to me that we need “diverse approaches”. Probably we need robust, simple, and “upscaleable” approaches that allow diversity to be created dynamically and exchanged widely.

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