The first thought that runs through your mind when you watch Bill Gates speaking at the World Food Prize’s Norman Borlaug Dialogue is “How strange is this?”

But there was Gates, arguably the world’s richest man, speaking passionately in Des Moines, Iowa, about the need to help farmers in Africa boost their yields and incomes so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.

Gates referred several times to the memory of Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize and father of the Green Revolution, and to other researchers, policymakers and activists “who spent their lives fighting poverty and hunger through agriculture.”

The Harvard dropout, who engineered a technology revolution by creating Microsoft, talked about Borlaug’s belief that improving farmers’ productivity could help end hunger and poverty.

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Gates described how he and his wife, Melinda, came to this juncture. “When we started our foundation, we agreed our giving should be guided by our belief that all lives have equal value — that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.

“Over time, our search for the greatest leverage brought us to the most compelling challenge in development: How do you help people who live on less than a dollar a day?”

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income farming small plots of land. “If we can make small-holder farming more productive and profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger, nutrition and poverty. Helping the poorest farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger.”

The latter is a formidable task, that, as the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate Gebisa Ejeta, a native of Ethiopia, said, must start with Africans — researchers, government officials and farmers — themselves.

One obstacle is the divide between those who advocate a technological approach that increases productivity and those who believe in an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

“They say you have to choose, but it’s a false choice. 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,” says Gates. “The fact is we need productivity and sustainability.”

Earlier in the week, Ejeta was asked during a speech at Iowa State University how he would work to stop African farmers from harming the environment through the “over use” of commercial fertilizer?

“Can I politely disagree with you?” he asked. “I don’t know of any situation in Africa where degradation of the environment is the result of excessive use of technology. The problem is mining of the nutrients in the soil because we have been unable to replace what the plants are removing.”

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