Technological innovation would help solve hunger

NEW YORK (AP) — Bill Gates says the global hunger crisis is so huge that food aid can’t fully address the problem. What’s also needed, Gates argues, are the kinds of innovations in agricultural technology he has long funded to try to reverse the crisis documented in a report released Tuesday by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates points, in particular, to a breakthrough he calls “magic seeds,” crops designed to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests. The Gates Foundation on Tuesday also released a map modeling how climate change will likely affect growing conditions for crops in different countries to highlight the urgent need for action.

By assigning technology a prominent role in addressing the global food crisis, Gates is at odds with critics who say his ideas are at odds with global efforts to protect the environment. They note that such seeds generally need fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers to grow.

Critics also argue that Gates’ approach fails to address the urgency of the crisis. Developing “magic seeds” takes years and will not immediately provide relief to countries currently suffering widespread hardship because they rely on food imports or face historic droughts.

It’s a debate that could intensify international pressure to achieve the shared goals for global prosperity and peace, known as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, before the 2030 deadline. The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, fighting climate change, providing access to clean water, working towards gender equality and reducing economic inequality.

“It’s very bleak in terms of our hopes for 2030,” Gates, 66, told The Associated Press. He added, however, “I’m optimistic that we can get back on track.”

Gates pointed to the war in Ukraine and the pandemic as the main causes of the worsening hunger crisis. But his message to other donors and world leaders convening for the UN General Assembly in September is that food aid will not be enough.

“It’s a good thing that people want to keep their fellow human beings from starving when conflicts like Ukraine disrupt the food supply,” Gates writes in the new report. But the real problem, he says, is that many food-insecure countries do not produce enough food on their own – a problem that will surely be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

“The temperature continues to rise,” Gates said. “There is no way, without innovation, we can even come close to feeding Africa. I mean, it just doesn’t work.”

As he has done for more than 15 years, Gates called for investment in agricultural research, emphasizing corn seeds that thrive in hotter temperatures and drier conditions than other varieties. These seeds were developed under a program of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to which the foundation has given $131 million since 2008.

Since then, the Gates Foundation has spent $1.5 billion on grants focused on agriculture in Africa, according to Candid, a nonprofit that researches philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is by far the largest private foundation in the world and is best known for its work in global health, including vaccines. It began in its current form in 2000 after Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft, the tech giant he co-founded. Forbes estimates his net worth to be around $129 billion.

The Foundation’s spending on rural development is why Gates’ view of how countries should respond to food insecurity has taken on greater significance in a year when 345 million people around the world are acutely hungry. The World Food Program said in July that the toll represented a 25 percent increase from before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and a 150 percent jump from before the pandemic emerged in spring 2020.

In Ghana, field trials of four modified seed varieties began in 2013. But only last summer was one approved for commercialization, said Joeva Rock of the University of Cambridge. Activists there, he said, have asked whether those resources could have been better spent elsewhere.

“What would happen if these went to raising funds in Ghana’s national research centers, building roads, building warehouses, building silos or building markets?” said Rock, who has written a book on food sovereignty in the country.

When asked, Gates acknowledged the importance of infrastructure such as roads and other transportation systems.

“If you want your inputs to come in, like fertilizer, if you want your output to go out, it’s very expensive in Africa without that infrastructure,” he said, adding that building and maintaining roads is very expensive.

Some researchers question the wisdom of pursuing the fundamental principle that Gates has embraced: Increasing agricultural production through the use of modified seeds along with fertilizers and pesticides. They point to the environmental footprint of industrial agriculture, including the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, the degradation of soil quality and the loss of biodiversity.

Alternatives could include agroecological interventions such as the development of locally managed seed banks, composting systems to promote soil health and non-chemical-based pesticide interventions, experts said. Over time, these approaches can reduce the need for food aid and create more resilient agricultural systems, according to Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor of global development at Cornell University.

Kerr, lead author of the food chapter of the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, said that while the panel is not making recommendations, “overall, the kind of focus on a few technologies and reliance on fossil fuel inputs inconsistent with ecosystem-based adaptation’ or the future of biodiversity.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, defends his approach by warning that limiting access to fertilizer means farmers cannot increase their yields.

“Fertilizer is essential. You just can’t achieve the overall productivity gains without it,” Suzman said, speaking on a call with reporters.

In his AP interview, Gates himself dismissed criticism of the foundation’s emphasis on modified seeds.

“If there’s a solution that’s not innovative, you know, like singing ‘Kumbaya,’ I’ll put money behind it,” Gates said. “But if you don’t have those seeds, the numbers just don’t work.” He added: “If someone says we’re ignoring a solution, I don’t think they’re looking at what we’re doing.”

Another project the foundation has funded is the development of computer models that attempt to measure crop loss caused by disease or pests. The idea is to direct research and answers to where they are most needed.

“It’s not just, how can we overcome this crisis and get back to normal? It’s, what does the future normal look like?’ said Cambria Finegold, director of digital development for CABI, an intergovernmental nonprofit that develops the models.

Melinda French Gates, the other co-chair of the Gates Foundation, highlighted in a separate letter the stalling of progress towards gender equality worldwide. Since January, the foundation has expanded its board, adding six new members to help direct its work, a move that followed the announcement of Gates’ divorce last summer.

French Gates agreed to step down after two years if the two decided they could no longer work together. French Gates, who also founded an investment firm called Pivotal Ventures, was not available for an interview.

Gates said he is fortunate that his ex-wife has continued to devote her time and energy to the foundation. In July, Gates said he would contribute $20 billion to the foundation in response to significant disruptions caused by the pandemic, increasing its endowment to about $70 billion.

Through his giving, investing and public speaking, Gates has kept the spotlight in recent years, especially on the issues of vaccines and climate change. But he has also been the subject of conspiracy theories that undermine his role as a developer of new technologies and his place among the highest echelons of the rich and powerful.

Gates said he doesn’t spend time thinking about conspiracies and that his foundation’s work has nothing to do with his personal reputation.

“If you go to these countries, they’ve never heard of me or the foundation,” Gates said. “Maybe in the rich world someone reads something on the Internet, but the people we care about have never, never will, and it’s not important to ever know who I am.”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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