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Can the world's richest man feed the planet?

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Echoing luminaries before him—from Norman Borlaug to Kofi Annan—the world's richest man, Bill Gates, called last night for a second Green Revolution focused on African farmers. That revolution won't just be in new crop varieties and higher yields but also in farmer training and infrastructure—and, perhaps most controversially, will be genetically modified.


"Three quarters of the world's poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land," Gates said. "So if we can make smallholder farming more productive and more profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty."


That's exactly what the first Green Revolution accomplished in the Latin America and Asia. "But it didn't go far enough," Gates said. "It didn't go to Africa."


"The charge is clear—we have to develop crops that can grow in a drought; that can survive in a flood; that can resist pests and disease," Gates added. "We need higher yields on the same land in harsher weather." The answer, at least in part? Sustainability paired with genetic modification.


After all, genetic modification can speed the development of drought-resistant varieties of various crops, or other traits of vital importance in improving the amount of food produced as well as farmers' ability to adapt to the challenges of climate change. To that end, Gates gave $10.4 million to the New Partnership for Africa's Development and Michigan State University to develop a center in Africa to help national governments develop appropriate regulatory systems for biotechnology.


Gates made his remarks during the awarding of the World Food Prize to Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian sorghum researcher who developed drought-resistant varieties of that staple crop. In addition to the $1.4 billion Gates has already committed to agricultural development, Gates announced nine new grants totaling $120 million, ranging from $10 million for broadcasting farming tips to smallholders to $21.25 million to produce high-yield, stress-tolerant varieties of sweet potatoes. And the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) received $15 million to help create the right development policies for seeds, soil health, markets, property rights and adapting to a changing environment to help speed agricultural achievement.


"The ability of Africa's smallholder farmers to adequately feed the continent depends on a policy environment that improves access to agricultural technologies, assures market access, stabilizes food prices for the poor, protects the environment and helps farmers adapt to climate change," said AGRA Chairman Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary General.


Gates also called for a more environmentally focused effort this time around. "The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first," Gates said. It "must be guided by smallholder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment. The last thing anyone should do is create short-term gains for poor farmers that have long-term costs for their children." That's a tall order for a planet running out of agricultural lands and predicted to reach nine billion people by 2050.


"Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved; they are the solution—the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty, and trying to feed a growing population," Gates said. "There is no reason for so many farmers to be so hungry and so poor."

Image: Courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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