Technological innovation would help solve hunger

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

Gates specifically points to a breakthrough he calls “magic seeds,” plants engineered to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests. The Gates Foundation on Tuesday also released a map modeling how climate change is likely to affect growing conditions for different countries, alerting different countries to the urgent need for action.

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

Critics also claim that Gates’ approach fails to take into account the urgency of the crisis. “Magic seeds” take years to develop and will not bring immediate relief to countries currently suffering widespread suffering from reliance on food imports or experiencing historic droughts.

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

“It’s pretty bleak compared to our hopes for 2030,” Gates, 66, said in an interview with The Associated Press. However, he added: “I am optimistic that we will get back on track.”

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

“It’s good that people want to avoid starving those around them when conflicts like Ukraine disrupt food supplies,” Gates writes in the new report. But the real problem, he says, is that many countries with food insecurity are not producing enough of their own food – a problem that is sure to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

“The temperature keeps rising,” Gates said. “Without innovation there is no way to even remotely feed Africa. I mean, it just doesn’t work.”

As he has done for more than 15 years, Gates has called for investment in agricultural research, emphasizing corn seeds that thrive in higher temperatures and drier conditions than other varieties. These seeds were developed as part of a program run by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, to which the foundation has donated $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 philanthropic giving. In some ways the largest private foundation in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is best known for its work on global health, including vaccines. It began in its current form in 2000 after Gates left his position as CEO at Microsoft, the tech giant he co-founded. Forbes estimates his net worth at around $129 billion.

The Foundation’s spending on agricultural development is why Gates’ view of how countries should respond to food insecurity has gained traction in a year when a record 345 million people around the world are suffering from acute hunger. The World Food Program said in July that the tally represented a 25% jump from when Russia invaded Ukraine in February and a 150% jump from when the pandemic broke out in spring 2020.

Field trials for four varieties of modified seeds began in Ghana in 2013. But it was only last summer that one was approved for marketing, said Joeva Rock of the University of Cambridge. Activists there, she said, have questioned whether those resources could have been better spent elsewhere.

“What would happen if that went towards increasing funding for Ghana’s national research centers, building roads, building warehouses, building silos, or helping to build markets?” said Rock, who wrote a book wrote about 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 just too expensive in Africa without that infrastructure,” he said, adding that roads are very expensive to build and maintain .

Some researchers question the wisdom of pursuing the basic premise that Gates accepted: 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, soil degradation and biodiversity reduction.

Alternatives could include agroecological interventions, such as the development of locally managed seed banks, composting systems to promote soil health, and pesticide interventions that don’t rely on chemicals, experts said. According to Rachel Bezner Kerr, professor of global development at Cornell University, over time these approaches can reduce the need for food aid and build more resilient agricultural systems.

Kerr, one of the lead authors of the food chapter of the International Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, said that while the panel does not make recommendations, “overall the nature of the focus on a few technologies and reliance on fossil fuel inputs is not consistent with ecosystem-based ones adaptation” or a biodiverse future.

Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman defends her approach, warning that restricting access to fertilizer means farmers can’t increase yields.

“Fertilizer is necessary. Without them, you just can’t get the full productivity gains,” Suzman said when speaking to reporters.

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

“If there’s a non-innovative solution, you know, like singing ‘Kumbaya,’ I’ll put money into 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 fix, I don’t think they’re looking at what we’re doing.”

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

“It’s not just about how do we get through this crisis and get back to normal? What does the future normal look like?” said Cambria Finegold, director of digital development at CABI, an intergovernmental non-profit organization developing the models.

In a separate letter, Melinda French Gates, the other co-chair of the Gates Foundation, highlighted the faltering progress on gender equality around the world. Since January, the foundation has expanded its board of directors, adding six new members to guide its work, a move that followed last summer’s announcement of the Gates’ divorce.

French Gates has agreed to step down after two years if the two decide they can’t continue working together. French Gates, who also founded an investment organization called Pivotal Ventures, was unavailable for an interview.

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

Through his donations, investments, and public speaking, Gates has been in the spotlight in recent years, particularly on the issues of vaccines and climate change. But he has also been the subject of conspiracy theories that play up his role as a developer of new technologies and his place in the highest echelons of the rich and powerful.

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

“If you go to those countries, they’ve never heard of me or the foundation,” Gates said. “Maybe someone in the rich world is reading something on the internet, but the people we care about never have, never will, and it doesn’t matter that they ever know who I am.”

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The Associated Press’s philanthropy and nonprofit coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US and is funded by 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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