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Bill Gates at the World Food Prize

If you have a few minutes, take the time to either watch or read the speech Bill Gates delivered at the World Food Prize in Des Moines. While I don’t care for the operating system that made him a multi-multi-billionaire, I don’t think anyone can argue that he is doing more good with his wealth than any other member of the superwealthy.

Africa is the only place where per capita cereal yields have been flat over the last 25 years. The average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa gets just over half a ton of cereal per acre. An Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer, four times that; an American farmer; five times that.

This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two.

On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity.

On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

Productivity or sustainability – they say you have to choose.

I believe it’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field. It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers.

We certainly need both productivity and sustainability – and there is no reason we can’t have both.

The environment also benefits from higher productivity. When productivity is too low, people start farming on grazing land, cutting down forests, using any new acreage they can to grow food. When productivity is high, people can farm on less land.

But some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment – divorced from people and their circumstances. 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.

And so much more. It’s a uplifting read and he makes a lot of good points. It’s reassuring to know that this guy, with billions of his own dollars, is fighting the good fight, and he’s doing it the right way. Developing drought tolerance maize, flood tolerant rice, rust resistant wheat, and training the first PhD in Perl Millet breeding (a crop that feeds 10s of millions of Africans and hasn’t seen increased yields since the 1960s) among many other crop improvement pushes. At the same time he’s investing in providing more market access to poor, small farmers. And providing assistance to African governments in developing policies beneficial to farmers.

Bill Gates doesn’t have training as a plant biologist or breeder, but he’s coming to the field as someone who trusts the data, not his own gut, to tell him what will work and what won’t in the pursuit of his goals.

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