Bill Gates announced during an Oct. 15 keynote address at the World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa, that an "ideological wedge" of environmentalism was hurting the fight against hunger in Africa. The World Food Prize, according to its Website, is an international award designed to recognize "individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world."
Gates emphasized that small-holder farmers would need to lead what he described as the "next Green Revolution," a follow-up to the original attempt by Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug to create a movement that would increase crop production and thus end hunger and poverty.
However, Gates said there was a threat to this global effort.
"Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment-divorced from people and their circumstances," Gates told the audience, according to a transcript hosted on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Website. "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."
The former Microsoft CEO suggested that there is a happy medium to be found between productivity and environmental sustainability, one that allows farmers to use technologies including genetically modified crops.
"In some of our grants, we include transgenic approaches because we believe they can help address farmers' challenges faster and more efficiently than conventional breeding alone," Gates said. "Of course, these technologies must be subject to rigorous scientific review to ensure [that] they are safe and effective."
Specifically, he pointed to modified crops such as drought-tolerant maize as essential for increasing yields in Africa. His foundation is also helping develop a rice variety, called Swarna Sub 1, which he said can survive in flood-prone areas such as India and Bangladesh; the foundation is also developing methods for fighting wheat rust, a fungal disease that kills wheat and rye.
The Gates Foundation approach to agriculture, as explained, boils down to two principles: focusing on small farmers and determining which investments will directly translate into better crop yields and soil, and improving the "value chain" of organizations, markets and training that constitute effective agriculture policy.
To that end, Gates announced nine grants totaling $120 million. The money will go to training and resources for African governments to regulate biotechnology and institute other small-farmer-oriented policies, and funding for legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, as well as high-yield sorghum and millet.