DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - The fight to end hunger is being hurt by environmentalists who insist that genetically modified crops cannot be used in Africa, Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of software giant Microsoft, said on Thursday.
Gates said GMO crops, fertilizer and chemicals are important tools — although not the only tools — to help small farms in Africa boost production.
“This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two,” Gates said in his first address on agriculture made during the annual World Food Prize forum.
“Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment,” Gates said. “They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in recent years has turned its focus to helping poor, small-holder farmers grow and sell more crops as a way to reduce hunger and poverty.
The foundation, which has committed $1.4 billion to agricultural development efforts, announced on Thursday nine new grants worth a total of $120 million aimed at raising yields and farming expertise in the developing world.
Funding will go to legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, higher-yielding varieties of sorghum and millet, and new varieties of sweet potatoes that resist pests, Gates said.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) will get $15 million to help train analysts and encourage farmer-friendly policies on seeds, markets, land tenure and women’s rights in five countries that have made strides in developing agriculture.
“Externally imposed solutions do not necessarily work,” AGRA President Namaga Ngongi told Reuters, noting “people who are likely to live with the consequences of the decisions if they do not work” need to be more involved.
Gates told the World Food Prize forum, which honors people who make major contributions to reducing hunger, that farmers need training and access to markets, not just new seeds.
“People are always telling me not to be too naive about the path from the trials to the breakthrough advance to how that will get out to the small-holder,” Gates said.
The World Food Prize was established by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist known as “the father of the Green Revolution” for his work with rice and wheat.
Gates acknowledged the first Green Revolution had negative impacts on the environment as it dramatically raised yields.
“The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first,” Gates said. “It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”
The Gates Foundation is working with research partners on drought-tolerant maize using both conventional crop-breeding techniques and biotechnology, Gates said, noting he hopes seeds will be available in two or three years.
The impact of those new varieties could help convince skeptics of the benefits of biotechnology, he said.
“The technologies will be licensed royalty free to seed distributors so that the new seeds can be sold to African farmers without extra charge,” Gates said.
“I hope that the debate over productivity will not slow the distribution of these seeds,” Gates said.
He also called on research companies to adapt technology to the needs of small farmers, and to make them available without royalties in the poorest counties.
African governments must invest in the work, Gates said, and rich counties that have pledged to increase funding for development must spell out the details of their plans.
“How much is old money, how much is new, how soon can they spend it, and when will they do more?” Gates said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Christine Stebbins; Editing by Lisa Shumaker