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 farmâ€™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 hasnâ€™t been the same investment in creating the seeds that fit those conditions.
Since I grew up as a city boy and didnâ€™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 foundationâ€™s approach. … Technology is also a personal passion of Melindaâ€™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?