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Bill Gates bets a billion on ag research

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted October 26, 2009

"Environmentalists are standing in the way of feeding humanity through their opposition to biotechnology, farm chemicals and nitrogen fertilizer"—straight talk from billionaire Bill Gates at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines October 15th  

Gates could have said with equal truth that the same environmentalists, by demanding organic-only farming, are risking the future of the planet's wildlife. The world will need more than twice as much food by 2050 to feed a peak population of 8 billion affluent humans and their pets. Gates believes we should get that additional food from higher yields on the 37 percent of the earth's land area we already farm, not by threatening massive numbers of wildlife species by clearing more land for low-yield crops.

Gates has thus delivered the most important speech on food and the world's future since Dr. Norman Borlaug accepted his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug's "miracle wheat" had made him the symbol of the original Green Revolution, which tripled yields on the world's best cropland through scientific research after 1960. Dr. Borlaug spent the last years of his amazing life trying to extend the Green Revolution to Africa and many farming regions with marginal lands, where today more than 1 billion people try to feed their families with hunting and slash-and-burn farming.

Now, Gates has committed more than $1 billion of his personal fortune to improving crop yields in Africa and marginal farming regions. He announced in Des Moines another $120 million in gifts for additional farm productivity research, including support for drought-tolerant corn and pest-resistant sweet potatoes. Until this moment, Gates had not spoken out on the use of biotech and chemicals to continue raising world crop yields.

Britain's Royal Society has also just produced a study, Reaping the Benefits:  Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture. Led by Dr. David Baulcombe, this report also concludes that biotech crops are one of the technologies urgently needed to avoid a global food crisis.

The eco-activists have claimed that organic-only farming could provide all the food needed—but only if humanity became vegetarian. Otherwise, there's a severe global shortage of cow manure and "extra" land and water to plant vastly more nitrogen-fixing green manure crops. However, history tells us that only a tiny percent of humans voluntarily choose to be vegetarian.

The Center for Global Food Issues and the reports of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology say even going vegetarian wouldn't save enough land from the plow.  More research must be brought to the farms in the coming decades to avoid wildlife disaster. The saving grace to date is that we've farmed the best land, which had large numbers of a few species; expanding onto the poor soils will threaten huge numbers of species.

Ironically, another speaker at the World Food Prize Symposium—economist Jeffrey Sachs who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University—criticized agriculture as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Sachs, of course, was implying that either the world's people must somehow sharply cut back on food and manufacturing, or cut human numbers by some enormous percentage.

It was an ironic reminder that the first Green Revolution lost its momentum after its funding from the Rockefeller Foundation had been drastically cut back. Ethicist Garrett Hardin tells us that Allan Gregg, a Rockefeller vice president, was one of the first to refer to population growth as "a cancer on the earth."  The government agencies that took over support for the international agricultural research network after Rockefeller dropped it have not been able to stand up to the political clout of the green movement.

Once again private philanthropy may provide the final step toward a world of adequately fed people and abundant wild-lands, as it did during the first Green Revolution. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

 

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