Iowa Public Television


Gates Defends Focus on High-tech Agriculture

posted on January 27, 2012

 KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) - Bill Gates has a terse response to
criticism that the high-tech solutions he advocates for world
hunger are too expensive or bad for the environment: Countries can
embrace modern seed technology and genetic modification or their
citizens will starve.
     When he was in high school in the 1960s, people worried there
wouldn't be enough food to feed the world, Gates recalled in his
fourth annual letter, which was published online Tuesday. But the
"green revolution," which transformed agriculture with high-yield
crop varieties and other innovations, warded off famine.
     Gates is among those who believe another, similar revolution is
needed now. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent about $2
billion in the past five years to fight poverty and hunger in
Africa and Asia, and much of that money has gone toward improving
agricultural productivity.
     Gates doesn't apologize for his endorsement of modern
agriculture or sidestep criticism of genetic modification. He told
The Associated Press that he finds it ironic that most people who
oppose genetic engineering in plant breeding live in rich nations
that he believes are responsible for global climate change that
will lead to more starvation and malnutrition for the poor.
     Resistance to new technology is "again hurting the people who
had nothing to do with climate change happening," Gates said.
     Groups resistant to genetic modification and other hallmarks of
modern agriculture, such as pesticides and petroleum-based
fertilizers, generally object on two grounds - concerns about the
environment and the high cost of the seed and chemicals used in
modern farming.
     Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Washington-based
Center for Food Safety, said everyone wants to see things get
better for hungry people, but genetically modified plants are more
likely to make their developers rich than feed the poor. The seed
is too expensive and has a high failure rate, he said. Better ways
to increase yields would be increasing the fertility of soil by
adding organic matter or combining plants growing in the same field
to combat pests, he said.
     The biggest problem with those alternatives, Freese said, is the
same one that Gates cited in high-tech research: A lack of money
for development.
     In his 24-page letter, the Microsoft Corp. chairman lamented
that more money isn't spent on agriculture research and noted that
of the $3 billion spent each year on work on the seven most
important crops, only 10 percent focuses on problems in poor
     "Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and
national stability, it is shocking - not to mention short-sighted
and potentially dangerous - how little money is spent on
agricultural research," he wrote in his letter, calling for
wealthier nations to step up.
     The Gates Foundation is heavily engaged in political advocacy to
get governments to spend more money on agriculture and improve
policies on issues such as trade and land ownership. Along with
advocacy and seed research, it spends its money on buying and
distributing fertilizer, educating farmers and improving their
access to world markets.
     Gates said most of the seed research paid for by his foundation
involves conventional plant breeding. In those cases, DNA research
allows scientists to pinpoint which genes are responsible for
desirable traits. He compares the work to changes in modern
     "We used to have to use the card catalogue and browse through
the books to find the information we needed," he wrote in his
letter. "Now, in the same way we know ... the precise page that
contains the piece of information we need, we can find out
precisely which plant contains what gene conferring a specific
characteristic. This will make plant breeding happen at a much
faster clip."
     But in some cases, researchers have inserted foreign genes, such
as with cassava, a plant that when processed makes tapioca. It is a
stable in Africa, but has been stricken by two diseases, causing
more widespread hunger. Scientists injected genes from the
disease-causing viruses into the plant's DNA to create a
vaccine-like effect.
     While Gates is a strong supporter of such work, he said
scientists and government need to proceed with caution.
     "I think the right way to think about GMOs is the same way we
think about drugs," Gates said in an interview. "Whenever someone
creates a new drug, you have to have very smart people looking at
lots of trial-based data to make sure the benefits far outweigh any
of the dangers.
     "You can't be against all drugs, but drugs in general are not
     Gates' letter also addressed the foundation's work on combating
AIDS and eradicating polio. He noted India recently celebrated its
first polio-free anniversary and expressed optimism during an
interview that other countries will soon have similar celebrations.
     He said good progress is being made toward developing an AIDS
vaccine and on AIDS treatment, and he hopes the U.S. will fulfill
its pledge to provide $4 billion over three years to The Global
Fund for AIDS research. It paid only $1 billion of that pledge in
the first year.
     Gates expressed in his letter and in person concern that the
U.S. and other rich nations continue to support foreign aid during
the recession.
     "If you ask people should we provide AIDS drugs to people who
need them, you get an overwhelming yes. When you ask people, do you
believe in foreign aid, you get a very skeptical view," he said.
"But the fact is that the biggest single program in foreign aid is
providing those AIDS drugs. People need to connect those things."

Tags: Bill Gates high tech technology world hunger