If African farmers and the world’s hungry are to climb out of their misery and become more productive citizens, technology will have to pave the way, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates says.
Gates, giving the keynote address at the World Food Prize’s Norman Borlaug Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, last week said Borlaug, universally recognized as the father of the Green Revolution, made a difference by using technology to increase food production. Borlaug died Sept. 12 at age 95.
“His passing is cause for sadness, but his life should make us optimistic,” said Gates. “In the middle of the 20th century, experts predicted famine and starvation, but they turned out to be wrong — because they did not predict Norman Borlaug.”
Gates, who admitted to being “kind of a technology-oriented person” himself during a dialogue with 2009 World Food Prize laureate Gebisa Ejeta, said Borlaug “not only showed humanity how to get more food from the earth — he proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor.”
Although Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people from starvation, the continent of Africa largely has missed out on the effects of the Green Revolution, most experts agree. Borlaug is reported to have said he had a problem shortly before he died — “Africa.”
“Africa is the only place where per capita cereal yields have been flat over the last 25 years,” Gates noted. “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.
“The technology and new approaches that are transforming agriculture in other parts of the world can be applied in new ways, and help Africa flourish, too.”
Gates, who announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is committing nearly $120 million for a variety of programs to help eliminate hunger in Africa, said the food crisis has forced hunger higher on the world’s agenda.
“From NGOs to the G8 to African heads of state — there is a rush of new commitment,” he said. “But there is also trouble. This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two.”
On one side, he said, is a technological approach that increases productivity. On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability and has tried to limit the use of new technology in Africa and other impoverished regions.
“Productivity or sustainability — they say you have to choose. 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. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both.”
Gates said many environmental voices have “rightly highlighted the excesses of the original Green Revolution. They warn against the dangers of too much irrigation or fertilizer. They caution against a consolidation of farms that could crowd out small-holder farmers.
“These are important points, and they underscore a crucial fact: the next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first. It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”