Bill Gates: Technological innovation would help solve hunger

FILE -Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at a news conference during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Gates urged world leaders not to give up on the goals they set to reduce hunger and poverty despite huge recent setbacks documented in a new report released Tuesday, Sept. 13 by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

NEW YORK (AP) – Bill Gates says the global hunger crisis is so severe that food aid cannot completely solve the problem. Gates argues that what is needed are the kinds of innovations in agricultural technology that he has long funded to try to address the crisis, documented in a report released Tuesday by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Is.

Gates, in particular, points to a breakthrough in what he calls “magical seeds,” crops engineered to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests. The Gates Foundation also released a map Tuesday that models how climate change will affect growing conditions for crops in different countries to highlight the urgent need for action.

In assigning technology a major role in addressing the world’s food crisis, Gates finds himself at odds with critics who say his ideas conflict with worldwide efforts to protect the environment. They note that such seeds usually require pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers to grow.

Critics also argue that Gates’ approach does not address the urgency of the crisis. “Magic Seeds” take years to develop and will not bring immediate relief to countries currently suffering widely as they rely on food imports or are facing historic droughts.

It is a debate that could intensify international pressure to meet the shared goals for global prosperity and peace, known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, before the 2030 deadline. The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, combating climate change, providing access to clean water, working toward gender equality, and reducing economic inequality.

“It’s very bleak relative to our hopes for 2030,” Gates, 66, said in an interview with the Associated Press. He added, however, “I am optimistic that we can get back on track.”

Gates cited the war and pandemic as the main reasons for the worsening hunger crisis in Ukraine. But his message to other donors and world leaders convened for the UN General Assembly this September is that food aid will not be enough.

“It’s good that people want to stop their fellow humans from starving when conflicts like Ukraine disrupt the food supply,” Gates wrote in the new report. But the real problem, he says, is that many food insecure countries do not produce enough of their own food – a problem that is exacerbated by the consequences of climate change.

“The temperature keeps rising,” Gates said. “There’s no way, without innovation, to come close to feeding Africa. I mean, it just doesn’t work.”

As he has for more than 15 years, Gates called for investment in agricultural research, uncovering corn seeds that thrive in higher temperatures and drier conditions than other varieties. Those seeds were developed under a program from the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, to which the foundation has given $131 million since 2008.

Since then, the Gates Foundation has spent $1.5 billion on grants focused on agriculture in Africa, according to Candid, a nonprofit that researches philanthropic charities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is by some measure the largest private foundation in the world and is known for its work on global health, including vaccines. It began in its current form in 2000, when Gates stepped down as CEO at Microsoft, the tech giant he co-founded. Forbes estimates his net worth to be around $129 billion.

The Foundation’s spending on agricultural development is why Gates’ vision of how countries should respond to food insecurity has taken on extreme importance in a year when a record 345 million people worldwide are acutely hungry. The World Food Program said in July that the tally represents a 25% increase from before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and a 150% jump from before the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

In Ghana, field trials for four varieties of modified seeds began in 2013. But only one has been approved for commercialization last summer, said Joeva Rock of the University of Cambridge. The workers there have asked if those resources could have been better spent elsewhere, he said.

“What if they increase funding to help build national research centers, build roads, build storage, build silos or market in Ghana?” Rock, who has written a book about food sovereignty in the country.

When asked, Gates acknowledged the importance of infrastructure such as roads and other transport systems.

“If you want your inputs like fertilizer to come in, if you want your production to go out, it is very expensive in Africa without that infrastructure,” he said, adding that building and maintaining roads is very expensive.

Some researchers question the prudence of pursuing the basic principle adopted by Gates: increasing agricultural production through the use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as modified seeds. They point to the environmental footprint of industrial agriculture, which includes the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, degradation of soil quality, and loss of biodiversity.

Alternatives could include agricultural interventions, such as developing locally managed seed banks, composting systems to promote soil health, and pesticide interventions that do not rely on chemicals, experts said. Over time, those approaches could reduce the need for food aid and build a more resilient agricultural system, according to Rachel Bezner Kerr, professor of global development at Cornell University.

Kerr, lead author of the food chapter of the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, said that although the panel does not make recommendations, “overall, there is a focus on certain technologies and reliance on fossil fuels. does not conform” or a biodiverse future.

Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman defended his approach, warning that limiting access to fertilizers meant farmers could not increase their yields.

“Fertilizer is essential. You cannot meet the overall productivity gains without it,” Suzman said while speaking to reporters on a call.

In his interview with the AP, Gates himself dismissed criticisms of the foundation’s emphasis on modified seeds.

“If there’s a non-innovative solution, you know, like singing ‘Kumbhaya’, I’ll put money behind it,” Gates said. “But if you don’t have those seeds, the numbers don’t work.” “If someone says we’re overlooking a solution, I don’t think they’re seeing what we’re doing,” he added.

Another project funded by the Foundation is the development of computer models that attempt to measure crop damage caused by disease or pests. The idea is to direct research and responses where they are needed most.

“It is not just that, how do we overcome this crisis and get back to normal? This is, what does the future look like?” said Cambria Finegold, director of digital development for CABI, an intergovernmental non-profit that is developing the model.

Melinda French Gates, the other co-chair of the Gates Foundation, in a separate letter highlighted the stalled progress towards gender equality around the world. Since January, the foundation has expanded its board, adding six new members to help direct its work, a move that came after Gates’ divorce was announced last summer.

French Gates agreed to step down after two years if the two decided they could not continue working together. French Gates, who also founded an investment organization called Pivotal Ventures, was not available for an interview.

Gates said he is fortunate that his ex-wife continues to put her time and energy into the foundation. In July, Gates said he would contribute $20 billion to the foundation in response to the significant setback caused by the pandemic, bringing its endowment to nearly $70 billion.

Through his donations, investments, and public speech, Gates has drawn attention in recent years, particularly to the topics of vaccines and climate change. But he has also been the subject of conspiracy theories that attribute his role as a developer of new technologies and his place in the highest echelons of the rich and powerful.

Gates said he doesn’t spend time thinking about conspiracies and that his foundation’s work has nothing to do with his personal reputation.

“If you go to these countries, they’ve never heard of me or the foundation,” Gates said. “Maybe someone in the rich world is reading something on the Internet, but the people we care about never, never will be, and it doesn’t matter that they ever know who I am.”


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